The Church in Emerging Culture

I have quite a lot I’d like to say about one of the most interesting books
I’ve read lately, and I hope you will find my reflections helpful. Sometimes books
are not only worth considering per se, however, as they immediately link
us to other books, similar authors, and a constellation of similar thoughts. This
month’s review will be on of those kind of wide-reaching ruminations. This month’s
lead title really is a must-read, but it should also be put in context.

Church in Emerging Culture: Five Views
(edited by Leonard Sweet (Zondervan,
is a friendly, if at times feisty and diverse, conversation about
the ways in which — given our postmodern times — the church should or
should not adapt our methods and message to the ways of contemporary culture.
Five fine writers and Christian leaders debate the character of our culture (Is
it excessively consumerist? Postmodern? Hyper-modern? Secular?
) and the nature
of the gospel (Is it a grouping of propositions with which we must agree or
a narrative in which we find ourselves? Is it the death of Christ to save souls
or the transformation of history into the reign of God?
) and of course, the
form and mission of the church. It is a healthy and good conversation by witty
and smart people, and it is a privilege to sit in and overhear these papers and
proposals, critiques, interruptions and rejoinders. I’ll bet you’ve got some smart
friends, but you don’t just have conversations this good on most nights. Kudos
to Len Sweet, who orchestrated this whole project for our sake. I hope it sells
widely as it is a foundational sort of work.

I will briefly describe this
provocative book but will then offer a bit of comment on other books on this topic
and the religious world in which this book is situated.

First, the authors.
(For those who follow evangelical publishing, you may know these.) In one volume,
we’ve got Andy Crouch, of the late and wonderfully thoughtful Gen X mag, re:generation
, whose well-written and surprisingly mature and balanced pieces
always catch my attention in Christianity Today; Michael Horton, reformed
theologian and heady, radio host of the White Horse Tavern show; Brian
McLaren, postmodern pastor, thinker, novelist, rabble-rouser; Erwin Raphael McManus,
who pastors an innovative and edgy interethnic church in Los Angeles called Mosaic
(his job description is "cultural architect") and who has published
some inspiring books such as The Unstoppable Force; and Frederica Mathewes-Green,
who has written richly on her journey to Orthodox faith, ancient forms of prayer
and worship and who appears as an occasional commentator on NPR. [She will also
be speaking on gender
at Jubilee 2004.]

essential structure of the book takes a bit to explain but is really quite simple;
readers just need to know this much (class, pay attention now): Each of the five
authors in this book offer their assessment of the contemporary (emerging?) culture
and the question of how churches might respond. Each has a different angle, which
can be described by seeing (more or less) how they approach both the nature of
the church and the gospel, the medium and message. Here is how they stack up:

says we should change the method or medium, but still preach the same old message.
Another says the opposite — that we can still maintain the same traditional
structures, but must construe and explain the gospel differently. Yet another
says that we need, in these post-Enlightenment emerging times, a new formulation
of both medium and message, and a fourth insists that we ought not to seriously
change our best formulations of church or gospel. The fifth voice, Frederica M-G,
says, interestingly, that yes, we need to change our understandings of both church
and gospel, but not towards a new postmodern paradigm, rather to a pre-modern
method and message (she’s Orthodox, remember). She argues for the normativity
and wisdom of the earliest understandings and practices of the church.

What’s more, Leonard Sweet’s amazing and erudite preface sets up the conversations
in a remarkable way. This is Len at his best, sociologically insightful, theologically
astute and clever as ever (and footnoted to the hilt). His extended metamorphic
schema of garden, park, glen, and meadow illuminates and plays with (deconstructs?)
Niehbur’s categories from Christ and Culture. Don’t skip this good
part of the book. (Also helpful is his brief discussion on the inconsistencies
within various groups as they relate to culture in ways that are described as
reactive, responsive, or redemptive.) Sweet is to be applauded for giving good
handles to pick up this discussion, for midwifing the conversation and applying
his insight, verve and hope to the task at hand: helping us all think more faithfully
about bearing fruit in our fast-paced and ever-changing world.

That the
book isn’t like those linear, debate-type books, with chapters and counter-chapters
but includes (in italics) interruptions and asides is itself indicative of the
mood (and philosophy?) of this project. There are even grainy black and white
photos of the conference room — juice bottles, notebooks, Bibles and recorders
scattered — where some of the initial conversations occurred. This helps
you literally see the authors, imagine their tone, appreciate their passion. The
conversations get deep sometimes — Horton especially plays the curmudgeon,
at times, as you might expect — yet sometimes are lighthearted. (Like when
Frederica writes, "I’m standing on my chair cheering. Okay, I’m getting down
now.") This is a fun and important book and I commend it to you.

* *

The Church in Emerging Culture isn’t raising these great questions
out of the blue, of course. A book like this had to happen, as these are conversations
that are happening in college fellowship groups, in struggling churches looking
for new ways to be effective, in innovative church plants and in the growing (or
now plateaued) mega-churches or mega-church wannabes. The questions of Christ
and culture, especially now as we are in a period of social upheaval and epochal
changes, are huge. If churches aren’t asking them, it seems to me they are either
deaf to the times or very, very dumb.

There is, you should know, a growing
movement of folks who are writing and reading and experimenting with new forms
of being the church and doing ministry in ways which they take to be congruent
with our post-Christian new millennial culture. A colorful handful of hardbacks
in the Flagship line from Group Publisher (the flagship of which was Sweet’s Aqua-Church)
well illustrate this movement. Hear the ring of these kind of titles, such as
An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Be the Church God Had in Mind by
Erwin McManus or Mission-Driven Worship: Helping Your Changing Church Celebrate
(Handt Hanson) or Morph! The Texture of Leadership for Tomorrow’s
(Ron Martoia) or, unLearning Church: Just When You Thought
You Had Leadership All Figured Out
(Michael Slaughter) and the brand new
Discovering Your Church’s Future Through Dynamic Dialogue (by Pittsburgh’s
Dave Fleming). Even more staid publishers are reflecting on revitilization of
congregational life, in light of the changing generational research and cultural
mores of our times.

One of the early books signaling this re-examination
of church structure — sort of a wilder-than-Willow Creek, more organic and
gritty, knowingly influenced by postmodern themes — was Brian McLaren’s own
The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix.
(Of course, every generation has visionaries reflecting on what the church ought
to be and be about; I was reviewing, in Sojourners, Howard Snyder’s communally-oriented
Community of the King in the late ’70s, a book that I still find
immensely important and happily still in print!) Dallas Willard, certainly no
postmodern guru, and one who surely cannot be accused of superficiality or trendiness,
has a telling blurb on the back of McLaren: "We’d better listen to McLaren
if we want to bring the reality of Christ into the world as it is and the church
as it now is." As McLaren puts it in that important book, "We are exploring
off the map, looking into mysterious territory beyond our familiar worlds on this
side of the boundary between modern and postmodern worlds."

He has
gone on to ruminate on his vision of new kinds of faith in two much-discussed
novels published by Jossey-Bass, A New Kind of Christian and the
sequel, The Story We Find Ourselves In ( which is subtitled "Further
Adventures of a New Kind of Christian"). His newest is co-written with Tony
Campolo, Experiments in Missing The Point: How The Culture-Controlled Church
has Neutered the Gospel
, a book whose very title speaks volumes. His heart,
though, is with the local church and his Church on the Other Side illustrates
much of his vision.

One of the recent books documenting this new movement
of younger, postmodern thinkers and pastors who are pursuing new efforts is Dan
Kimball’s The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations
(Zondervan, $14.99). Highly readable, this is the overview given to us
by the founding pastor of "Graceland" (how’s that for the name of a
fellowship?). It shows that the newest and most postmodern spiritualities are
neither generic nor unconnected to Christian tradition but are, in the memorable
phrase of Robert Webber, "ancient future." That is, they incorporate
liturgical aspects, aesthetic attitudes and doctrinal insights to create worship
experiences and communal practices that are more than the "stripped down"
singing and announcements and an informal talk that has come to characterize some
seeker-friendly Boomer services. To reach a younger, postmodern generation, worship
will have to regain what the seeker movement of the last decade resisted: mystery,
ritual, multi-dimensional involvement.

Webber has given us the essential
programatics for that in his powerhouse two-volume set, Ancient Future Faith
and Ancient Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community
(both Baker, $14.99). These are important books by a wonderful man and a scholar
who has himself pioneered an ecumenical and diverse approach to worship that emphasizes
creedal affirmation, the arts, gospel clarity and ancient ways. That he thinks
this is especially appealing to the newer generations is clear in his must-read
documentation of the ways in which young Christians experience their faith, entitled
The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (a
book that must be read by any middle-aged leader who works with younger folks
or any pastor or church leader who senses that there is a paradigm shift or generational
gap in their community). I wish space permitted to describe in greater detail
Webber’s body of work, but know that he is an important and wise writer who has
done serious homework and paid serious attention to the various voices —
from Marva Dawn to Leonard Sweet, the early church to the latest rage — calling
for ecclesiastical and liturgical reform. Any of his works — including the
slim Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail — are worth considering.
See also his magisterial, trans-denominational six-volume set now published by
Hendrickson, The Complete Library of Christian Worship (two of
which are specifically on the arts and music). Each volume sells for about $50.00,
and we offer good discounts on the set. You can also check out his Web site (
or call us to talk further about his work.

One incredible place to check
out the ideas of younger Christians who take seriously the interest of engaging
culture and reflecting on contemporary forms of faith is the now renowned Web
For those less than cyber-savy, the emergent line of books has released Making
Sense of the Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community
and Culture
edited by Spencer Burke (Zondervan), which is a reproduction
of and commentary on some of the more interesting discussions going on in that
forum. For a real-life glimpse of stuff people are saying, it is a very open window
through which much can be seen. The book is worth having around just to dip in
to, to jog your own thinking, or to attempt to understand — especially if
you are an older reader who must say, in Leonard Sweet’s apt description —
postmodern is not your native tongue.

You must know, though, that there
are those who would contest this emergent village (see
ooze. I myself expressed both appreciation and ambivalence in my review last year
of Stories of Emergence: From Absolutes to Authenticity (edited
by the late great Mike Yacconelli; Zondervan). I was fascinated with the stories
— well worth reading — but frustrated that so many were moving towards
spiritually-alive, life-affirming, artistic, socially-active, culturally-aware
visions of the church as an authentic community as if that were a new idea. Where
have they been, I perhaps unkindly wondered: haven’t they heard of the culturally-incisive
critiques of modernity by Francis Schaeffer? Or the wonderfully liberating yet
centered work of Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action? The biting satire
of The Wittenburg Door? Or the aforementioned Howard Snyder’s books on
the church as a community, published by IVP in the ’70s? Must one really become
postmodern to be against legalism, anti-intellectualism, middle-class religiosity,
right-wing civil religion, trendy church growth campaigns, and authoritarian faith
communities? Had the decades-old flood of books on contemplative spirituality,
liturgical renewal, and spiritual direction entirely missed them? Haven’t these
independent church workers ever visited a mainline church that worked hard at
these things?

And, I wondered, and wonder still, if this emerging movement
of new voices doing edgy postmodern ministry really does intend to be biblically
potent, challenging the idols of the age, building community with the poor and
resisting the violence of imperialism, daily technocracy and the like? Or are
they just a hip and tattooed version of the Boomer-oriented seeker services, making
everyone feel comfortable and cared for, as long as they fit the homogenous demographics
recommended by the church growth consultants? I know McLaren — perhaps because
he is an avid environmentalist or because he’s been hanging out with Mennonites
a bit — has similar concerns, and I respect him for being graciously outspoken
on matters of peace and justice.

Still, it isn’t just the emerging generation
of young post-evangelicals whose current tendencies may be an (over?) reaction
to a lack of intregal orthodox vibrancy of the past decades. Conservative evangelicals
and trendy mega-churches aren’t the only ones who have failed to keep up with
radical cultural shifts, relating faith to the issues of the day. I was recently
with McLaren — selling books in the back, of course — who was sharing
his "ministry as postmodern dance" steps with a good gathering of largely
liberal mainline clergy. And amazingly, more than one old school leader said to
me, browsing the smattering of these kinds of books I had on display, "Where
did this stuff come from?" and "I’ve never heard these kind of views

So — woosh! Did you see Neihbur’s ghost fly by,
leaving traces of his old categories? Apparently, it isn’t just a caricature:
conservative Protestants really have been disengaged from culture, holier-than-thou
and out of it, while liberal Protestants have too often been nearly swallowed
up in accommodation, trying to be relevant but still essentially bourgeois.

reminds me. I said a few months back in this column that Os Guinness’ book, Prophetic
Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance
(Baker $16.95), is
an essential essay to remind us of the dangers of selling out to the latest manifestation
of the spirit of the age. In Os’ very important and clear little book, he maintains
that the contemporary zeal for relevance amongst evangelicals, especially, may
be a mirror image of the unhelpful move of the mainline churches of the 20th century.
As the mainline gutted out commitment to serious theology and orthodoxy, eroded
Biblical truth — all in the name of cultural and scientific relevance —
they increasingly became, as the pundits now put it, "sideline." I wish
Os could have been a part of this conversation with the other five partners in
The Church in Emerging Culture, and I would love to have each of
them comment on his important and incisive book. (His thesis, too, that our view
of time — mechanistic, clock-oriented — is a prime carrier of modernity,
leading to an idolatry of the efficient, would be a very, very important bit of
conversation for the five to discuss.)

Hasty readers can skip this nasty
aside — I just can’t help myself, and somebody ought to say it, so I’ll say
it here in the little CCO Ministry Exchange and on my Hearts
& Minds Web site
: despite my loyalty to a mainline denomination and
my general ease with ecumenical theology and my pleasant friendships with those
who see themselves as theologically liberal, it just exasperates me to no end
when otherwise sharp liberals rave about Marcus Borg’s new book. Therein, he boldly
claims that fundamentalists are modernists and his brand of mystical liberalism
is not. That is the downright dumbest thing — well, except his denial of
the bodily resurrection, which is worse than dumb — he has yet written.

penance should be to have to take nearly any undergrad sociology of religion class
to get it right: Protestant fundamentalism emerged as an anti-modernist movement;
liberal theology wanted to accommodate Protestant faith claims to modernity and
science. Higher critical analysis of the Bible is hardly anything but an Enlightenment
reading. Hasn’t Borg read nearly any postmodern or canonical critics who make
this claim, or even Walter Wink’s first book? One of the quintessential stories
in the telling of Western history is the secularization of Europe after the Enlightenment
and modern theology’s complicity with that Kantian modernity with its anti-supernaturalism
and its brutalizing fetish of progress through science. My favorite explanation
of this, by the way, is simply and engagingly spelled out in the first chapter
or so of Walsh and Middleton’s spectacularly significant Truth is Stranger
Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age

So, be
warned: not everybody who talks about this modern world stuff has a clue. End
of aside.

And so, now, into this hot-wired cultural context, some evangelical
publishers are cranking out new paradigms and emerging voices, while others protest.
From Marva Dawn’s prophetic critique (influenced as she is by Jacque Ellul’s naysaying)
to Eugene Peterson’s sober pastoral wisdom that eschews methods and glitz to those
social justice radicals who might wonder if all this search for new millennial
methods is not just too comfortable with Constantian power plays, not everyone
is sure of these emerging guys….and good-hearted folks in rather ordinary
congregations wonder what the fuss is all about.

As should be plain by now,
I believe that liberals, evangelicals, post-evangelicals and everyone else in
between or otherwise, in our own place and way, need to struggle with the cultural
changes that are around us. College students or Boomers, youth ministers or older-school,
stable clerics, all must grapple with the air we breathe, the air our friends
and neighbors breathe. We are called to be discerning of the times, caring for
our world, wise.

Len Sweet in Soul Tsunami — we still
recommend the audio tape versions of that thick book — spelled it out like
this: the shift from modernity to postmodernity includes (among other things,
perhaps more important things) a shift that he called EPIC. Where we were once
essentially a print culture, oriented towards linear logic, we are now experiential
learners. We now insist on being participatory; our world is increasingly visual
and image-based; we are longing for community to replace the excessive individualism
of the American way.

Experiential, participatory, image-based and communal.
These are easy ways to name some of the shifts of culture, and it is at least
worth debating if he is correct. And then, if he is even partially correct, how
then shall we live, how then shall our churches form and order themselves, how
do we proclaim and live out the implications of the gospel of God’s Kingdom acoming?
Do we work with these trends (as if they are inevitable) or resist? Or applaud?
What should the church look like today? What should be the focus of its message?
How should we present that message?

The Church in Emerging Culture:
Five Views
is one of the most useful tools I have seen to begin or deepen
that dialogue. Read it, talk about it, argue with it, share it with others. It
is not the full answer, but I am sure the discussion here is broad enough —
Mathewes-Green is Orthodox, after all, and Horton is a conservative Calvinist
— to raise many of the best questions. I promise you that in these discussions
you will learn something worth knowing, overhear something worth pondering, discover
a voice worth respecting and, yes, read a line or two that will make you shake
your head.

Perhaps I might close with one of the underlined quotes from
McManus’s chapter:

Without realizing it, we have
slipped into the view that the world creates culture and that the church reacts
to it. In our most innovative moments we analyze cultural trends and project historical
movements. Then, like a twig determined to stop a tsunami, we brace ourselves
for the future. But is it possible that the church was intended to be the cultural
epicenter from which a new community emerges, astonishing and transforming cultures
through the power of forgiveness, freedom and creativity? Have we overestimated
the effectiveness of methods, programs, and structures and underestimated the
transforming essence of faith, hope and love?

* *

One of the best ways to see how to relate faith to culture is to not
just have these great and feisty debates as portrayed in the book just commended,
but rather to plunge in to an artifact of contemporary culture and get busy. Study
the structure of American cities and towns (see my review
from September
of books to do that) or reflect on the nature of advertising,
film or the pace of life. (Check out the theological introduction to new urbanism,
appropriately entitled Sidewalks of the Kingdom by Eric Jacobson
(Brazos Press, $16.99), or the high-octane rant — one of my favorite books
of the year! — by suburban critic, James Howard Kunstler, called Home
From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century
$14.00).) An new amazing book is entitled Shopping Malls and Other Sacred
Spaces: Putting God in Place
, which is a big, sprawling book of deep insight
about the ways space has played a part in the ordering of our lives and our views
of faith. Author Jon Pahl is a beloved teacher at the Lutheran Theological Seminary
(he studied under Martin Marty at the University of Chicago), and it is published
by our friends at Brazos ($17.99).

Another Brazos title — they have
an excellent record of helping us study this kind of stuff — is Selling
Ourselves Short: Why We Struggle to Earn a Living and Have a Life
by Catherine
Wallace ($22.99.) Here, she carefully unpacks the way consumerism, fast-paced
time schedules, and contemporary cultural practices damage our efforts to find
meaningful work and home life. Jean Bethke Elshtain calls it "a courageous
and moving work." Such resources are worth working through so that we might
truly understand our times, and thus become more equipped to discern the contours
of faithful living in them.

Or, yet another way, you can just study rock
and roll, the current language of much of the world’s population.

I am absolutely
thrilled to announce that we have just received our copies of the much anticipated
Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching Through the U2 Catalog edited
by Raewynne Whiteley & Beth Maynard (Cowley, $14.95). It is, as you may have
heard, a collection of actual sermons preached which use the lyrics of U2 songs.
Since it just arrived, I have not had time to read anything but Eugene Peterson’s
brilliant preface on metaphor. I had previously seen four of the chapters, two
by my good friend Brian Walsh and two by my good friend Steve Garber.

am so absolutely thrilled and honored to know these two guys — stunning writers
in their own way, each faithful to Bible and Bono — and am not at all exaggerating
to say it is worth every single penny to buy this book if only for these five
chapters. I am confident that many of the numerous other chapters will be good
and the group guide in that back looks quite useful. I applaud Cowley — most
known for tender books of spiritual formation and the wonderful Barbara Brown
Taylor collections — for leaping into this new world for them.

there is a parable here. Take the risk to try a new thing. Listen to Bono. Preach
the Word. How’s that for a strategy for postmodern faithfulness?