Postmodern Church and the Farmlands of Iowa… Part 3

In this installment, I want to talk about some of the “best practices” that I see coming out of emerging, missional, and postmodern churches. Some of these practices are mentioned in Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, but they also come from Kester Brewin’s, Signs of Emergence. A few of the “best practices” are ones that I have been introduced to as I have been in conversation with pastors across the country.

First, I think in emergent churches there is a deep shift towards becoming a community of practitioners. Rather than offering services to be consumed, these congregations invite individuals to become a part of a communal pilgrimage. Or as Dan Kimball claims, the emerging church will have to teach people “that they are the church and that they don’t simply attend or go to one.”

Faith becomes “a craft learned over time in community,” according to Bass, as she describes the Seattle Church of the Apostles which takes seriously this communal pilgrimage. Realizing that many in the community had no experience whatsoever with Christianity, they developed a process called The WAY, focused on creating pilgrims rather than members. In the year long journey, “the goal is to help them at their own pace to come into a living relationship with Jesus Christ that takes over the center of their life.”

As I have seen this lived out, on the ground, many emergent faith communities are actually small groups that are connected to more institutional churches.  In some ways, I think of them as that magic 10% of the people who get it and who really want to live out their faith.  As Taylor Burton Edwards has talked about Wesleyan missional groups and accountability groups and class meetings – in some ways he has encouraged people to focus on those people who want to take the deeper plunge. Their journey and witness can become a catalyst for other transformations in the lives of your congregation members and in people completely unconnected to the church. Praxis rather than doctrine rules this shift.
Another “best practice” is that these churches take seriously their location. Kester Brewin describes these churches as adaptable systems that resist standardization. While the modern scientific perspective took something from one context and directly applied it to another, the postmodern realizes that cookie cutter ministry will not work and that each church needs to be authentic to its own location.

For example, Bass describes an Episcopal church that began a Hispanic congregation for new immigrants. In their worship practices, and especially in communion, they felt they needed to pay attention to what it means to be “home”:

Think of the joy of going home to the house you grew up in, with the smell of your mother’s cooking in the kitchen, the tastes of food, the sounds of family. Here, like your mother’s table, the Lord’s table welcomes you home. Here we are an extended family in the Spirit through communion. You are all members of God’s house.

That might seem comforting to us who fondly remember what it is like to be gathered around a parent’s dinner table.  But how much more welcoming is it for a community of people who are far from the homes they grew up in.  How much more inviting is that statement for a people who are creating a new home in unfamiliar territory.  When you are disoriented and alone, the reminder that God welcomes us into a wider family is powerful.  The goal is not to market to a specific audience or offer a product; rather the church must look seriously at how the gospel comes alive within the experiences of the people.

In Indianapolis last year, I was able to immerse myself in the Earth House Collective and Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church.  They recognized that their neighborhood was quickly changing and that their dying congregation needed to adapt.  So they transformed their basement into a restaurant and their fellowship space into a coffee shop and they tore out the pews and in addition to Sunday night worship, they host plays, dance performances, movies, and concerts.  Their church became a community center and thousands of people come in through their doors each year. That is not something that I can just transplant into a rural community – but it authentically came from their location near the Indy arts district.

The third thing that I find imporant in these churches is their spirit of discernment. Brewin describes this as creative waiting:

So against our hasty judgment, and in God’s scientific wisdom, before we can experience the transformation that is vital to our survival, we will be required to wait. To be acted on gently, gracefully, and peacefully. Shaped, not crushed; guided, not dragged.

The Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. has adopted the more traditional Quaker practice of open worship.  They are asking what God wants for them as a church by listening together in small groups. They gather to hear the truthfulness of God. There are no speeches, no panel discussions, and no debates here, only the deeply countercultural act of silence… When ready, someone shares… the speaker, who is never interrupted by the group, tries to focus the presentation on God’s presence in the midst of these concerns.

This practice is about deep openness to change rather than the modern church’s resistance to it. Just imagine if a congregation was able to say, “just because we’ve never done it that way before, doesn’t mean we can’t.” Bass reminds us that the Christian story is about metanoia or “the change of heart that happens when we meet God face-to-face.” To deny this, is to deny our calling.

Finally, these congregations live with “both/and.” This is the postmodern notion of being comfortable with paradox and contradiction, yet it is also deeply Christian. When asked what he had learned during his long life about the Christian journey, Elton Trueblood responded with the word “and”:

It is good and bad; it is made up of life and death; it is being close to God and sometimes distant… It is the task of the Christian to live in the ‘and,’ in the ambivalence of life.

All the vital congregations Bass studied lived in this tension. They were “creative and traditional, risk-taking and grounded, confident and humble, open and orthodox.” The church I interned with in Nashville, Tennessee was large enough that some of those tensions were felt.  We were a fairly diverse group of folks – liberal and conservative, traditional and yet also willing to try new things.  A small and powerful worship service began on the fourth floor of the building in an old theater space and I think for a year and a half – the folks who gathered there really lived in that tension of the “both/and.”

These four characteristics are what have inspired me about the praxis and theology of the emergent church.  I find in each of them deep biblical roots and have seen the transformation that occurs when they are allowed to take center stage in communities and congregations. But for the most part – that happened in urban contexts, in population centers, with resources like money and talent and time to help foster them.

What happens when the theology and practice are transported to a small county seat town in Iowa?  Stay tuned…

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