In our final year at Vanderbilt Divinity School, we work on the crowning glory of our graduate work: our seminar paper. As I sat down three years ago to write this work, I was very interested in how I might take all that I had learned and take it back home to Iowa. I knew I was heading into a rural congregation and I wanted to prepare myself.
During that time at Vandy, my eyes were opened to postmodern culture and theology – particularly manifested in the emerging church movement. I am convinced that this “movement” is not a fad within the church, but a group of individuals and communities who are thoughtfully re-examining their theologies and practices in order to be more faithful to the gospel in their particular place and time. I have begun to be a part of their discussions in small group meetings, conferences, on blogs and through email and every chance that I get to explore what this might mean for the institutional church, especially my United Methodist tradition, invigorates me! I resonate with the ways in which tradition is invited to become organically connected with the present reality of our lives. I find new energy and hope in the emphasis on ritual, community and shared experience. Above all, I have discovered a new framework by which to describe the most meaningful religious experiences of my life.
At the same time, I felt a deep calling to be in ministry in Iowa… which perpetuated a small identity crisis as I tried to figure out how this integration might be possible. Postmodernism was rarely discussed in the churches I grew up in and was often seen more as a threat than a blessing. I am not like the pastors who nurtured my own faith and the “model leaders” who are uplifted and revered by the church culture. I am aware of a deeper, more authentic and communal style of leadership within me and postmodern theology has helped me to claim my own voice and calling as authentic. But the question in the back of my mind was whether the church in Iowa would see it the same way? This seminar conversation began as I asked myself what God wanted me to bring from my own experience that would be beneficial to the church there?
The reality is that the church itself (mainline, United Methodist, Protestant, small churches, you name it) is in danger of becoming irrelevant. More and more young people are seeking their faith outside of the institutional church – not in a rejection of Christianity, but in an attempt to preserve their own best faithfulness. I have in fact been one of those people, and yet cannot escape a call to remain within my tradition.
Which is possibly why this quote by Karl Barth stood out to me:
To the distinctiveness of its calling and commission, and therefore to the form of its existence as the people of God in [the] world…, there does not correspond in the first instance or intrinsically any absolutely distinctive social form [of the church].
If the church is not authentically living out its calling and commission through its present form, then perhaps in light of postmodernism it does need to be reformed.
At the time, I was interested in how I could take my education, my experiences, and the resources I gained in an urban and academic setting and apply it to rural ministry. I have always understood that it is my duty as a pastoral theologian to help the church hold in tension its tradition and its present reality… while at the same time being faithful to the gospel. So now, three years later, I want to return to the paper to see what has changed, what I have learned, and where I still want to wrestle. This conversation is my attempt to point to the intersection of postmodern church and rural United Methodist life I discovered, but now, with three years of ministry under my belt, I want to not only imagine what this faithful living might look like, but share what I have learned on the ground.
In the next few weeks, I’ll share some of the various contexts that are at play, some basic background on postmodernism, and what its like to be a congregation in a small town in Iowa. Then we’ll look at the role of theology and practice on the ground. I hope you’ll join me – and if you have any questions or want to share your own insights – join in!