Tag: David Fitch

The Challenge of Evangelical Banners

Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.

I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.

So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.

Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.

David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.

But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).

Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.

These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.

When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?

We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.

The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.

There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.

Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.

But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.

In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).

Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.

Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.

Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.

The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.

For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.

David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:

Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

…With Liberty and Justice for [Each of Us]

Rockwell PledgeThe Hobby Lobby decision may mark a rhetorical turning point in the interface between religious rights and individual rights. For decades we have been focused on one part of the Pledge of Allegiance (“One nation, under God”). But now I think our social imagination has shifted to the latter phrase (“with Liberty and Justice for All”). Then we’ve individualized that last phrase, so that the focus is on each person’s liberty and justice. Trying to navigate the space between various people’s individuality leads to the conflicts that seem never ending across the internet and media.

As is usually the case on this blog, this thesis came to me due to the contradictions inherent in a number of things I saw on social media. This morning I read a post on The Gospel Coalition blog titled “They Know Not What They Do” written by Greg Forster. He argues that it’s plausible to argue that secularists who oppose religious rights are misunderstanding basic issues about religion and society. He writes:

Such ignorance almost certainly does play some role, but that cannot be the whole story. Given his defective understanding of what religion is—and, for that matter, what a business is—the secularist genuinely doesn’t understand why the owners of a company would feel their consciences were at stake in the company’s actions.

His concluding lessons are fairly optimistic but took some turns to get there. But it was the quote that caught my attention. The “secularists” I read after Hobby Lobby understood that the Greens had issues of conscience. But they also were thinking of the impact of that decision of conscience on other individuals. They were calculating potential harm done to others in the process and found that unacceptable.

My friend David Fitch posted an 2013 article from the New York Times titled “Generation LGBTQIA” (which for some reason was in the Fashion and Style section). It told the story of how the LGBT label became inadequate because it didn’t include enough possibilities to cover each person’s experience. (Q is for Queer, I stands for Intersex and A stands for Ally). The implication is that each personal expression of sexuality and/or affinity must be affirmed as an expression of true individuality.

Still, the alphabet soup of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. may be difficult to sustain. “In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of L.G.B.T. will become quite quotidian [mundane],” Professor Halberstam said.

I read an interesting piece by Derek Rishmawy titled “I Used to Believe X for Reason Y…and the Failure of Intellectual Imagination.” He suggests that our focus on personal story can sometimes lead to overgeneralization and ad hoc conclusions. He says we need conversation with those others to protect us from logical error. Derek was writing primarily about young evangelicals telling conversion stories away from what they used to believe. As much as I think story is really, really, important I’ve always argued that story is only the beginning of dialogue and not an end in itself. But I readily acknowledge that in the broader society we have a tendency to speak only from personal experience and validate that over others’ experiences.

Sociologically, I want to place the impetus for all of the above on the prioritization of individualism within western society. It’s been nearly 30 years since  Habits of the Heart documented the damage that rampant individualism does to community. Over those three decades, what Durkheim called “the cult of the individual” has only grown stronger. As Durkheim predicted, this is a result of increasing diversity and changing bases for social solidarity.

I use Michael Sandel’s Justice in one of my fall classes. Today’s social media had me thinking of his chapter on Libertarianism. Sandel says that Libertarians oppose three things:

1. No Paternalism. Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves…

2. No Morals Legislation. Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority…

3. No Redistribution of Income or Wealth. The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others, including taxation for redistribution of wealth…(60)

In the midst of pondering how we shifted to the last phrase of the pledge of allegiance, about liberty and justice, the whole libertarian thrust came clearer to me. All these years of celebrating individualism in politics, movies, reality television, social media, the blogosphere (hello?), and education (especially higher ed) have taken a toll. It seems to me that we are less interested in liberty and justice for all as we are in liberty and justice for each person.

And that’s an untenable situation. There will be winners and losers. There will be some liberties that are sacrificed for others. Some people cannot pursue their liberties without infringing someone else’s.

GallupAverageAlso today, Tobin Grant posted some very interesting data on the changing role of religion in society. He analyzed five different measures of religion in American life that Gallup has tracked over the years: religious identity, church attendance, membership, religion’s importance in life, and religion’s relevance for today. All five of these show a dramatic decline. Then he statistically combines them into one measure and shows that change. My initial impression was that I’d tell my stats students that the truncated Y axis makes the decline look more dramatic than it really is. After all, it’s only a drop from 78% to 69% over 20 years.

But then I got to thinking that there may be something more happening. Perhaps there’s some tipping point below which religion is no longer the “one nation, under God” factor (more Durkheim). Maybe once we have 30% of the country thinking that religion is okay if that’s what you choose, then all we have are competing individual values.

Finally today, I came across an article written after the Hobby Lobby and Wheaton decisions by Winifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and affiliate professor of law at Indiana University. In her piece, “The impossibility of religious freedom” she writes provocatively about the  nature of religious freedom in legal terms as recognized by courts. It’s a detailed argument, outlining the importance of religion regardless of its broader acceptability. She calls out liberal critics of the court decisions. Of the justices, she writes:

Their common refusal, together with that of their predecessors, to acknowledge the impossibility of fairly delimiting what counts as religion has produced a thicket of circumlocutions and fictions that cannot, when all is said and done, obscure the absence of any compelling logic to support the laws that purport to protect religious freedom today.

 

So what do we do? Somehow we have to find a way to recast our argument in ways that speak to common values. That can affirm the multiplicity of voices and interests present in the society. Religion will be one of those voices but perhaps not a dominant voice, at least not one with a language the broader culture is prepared to hear. So when we evangelicals make our claims for privilege, we’ll have to do so in ways that transcend our unique group interests and speak to the broad range of expressions within the society.

Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back to that “Indivisible” which connects the “one nation” to the “liberty and justice for all”.

 

A Way Forward (Part Two): Looking for Confluence

Convergence

This is my second in my three-part series thinking about the future of evangelicalism, especially in light of our current struggles with who owns the label (more next time) and what it means. My last post (or posts) was about separating the broad cultural assumptions surrounding religion from religious practice. My argument is that if we focus on actual religious behavior instead of the dividing lines we throw up we can learn something important about the nature of Christ’s Church in this complex, diverse, postmodern world.

Last month I described why Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw was so important to our thinking about a society that no longer fits our past cognitive structures. As they argued, we are now in some form of post-Christendom society.

Not that Christianity isn’t relevant. To the contrary, it is more important than ever. But what changed is the notion that we can’t simply assume everyone shares our values or language. This is why the cultural baggage post had to happen first. We have to figure out how to talk about Christian faith in ways that will be heard within the contemporary culture.

David and Geoff unpack a number of ways in which the faith can communicate in what they call “the far country”. By following the metaphor of the Incarnation, they offer serious vistas on how the Gospel comes to cultures that are not initially accepting. As their subtitle states, they offer “10 signposts into the missional frontier”: Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, Incarnation, Witness, Scripture, Gospel, Church, Prodigal Relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.

I’ve recently finished Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I’m actually two books behind on her scholarship and her more recent work is focused on the nature of spirituality in America. Frankly, I read this particular book because it was on the shelf in the SAU library. But I was thrilled to read it because it opened my eyes to certain assumptions I was making about the nature of the religious landscape.

The book is the result of a three-year study, the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, funded by the Lilly Endowment. In the face of common statements about the accommodation of mainline congregations expressed in press, pulpits, and sociological scholarship, the project set out to examine “vital congregations”.

These congregations were different. Not because they had adopted conservative evangelical style or rhetorical schemes. Not because the pastors preached in jeans and layered shirts or wore hipster glasses. Not because the music was contemporary with lyrics projected up on the screen.

These were mainline congregations that embraced their mainline heritage and yet looked for authentic faith. They did it in ways that may differ quite a bit from the average megachurch and yet it had the same approach to being serious about Christianity.

Over the year or so I’ve been writing about the changing nature of evangelicalism, I periodically get comments claiming that my position is no different from mainline accommodationism. They are consistent with authors who have decried mainline religion as empty, embracing humanistic values in a desire to be accepted by the larger society. I’ve been troubled by these comments because they seemed so unaware of what real people in real churches were trying to do. The arguments seemed based on stereotypes of some mainline ministers from forty years ago.

I was thrilled when Diana’s first chapter offers a critique of an accommodationist congregation, one she knew as a girl. This, she said, was not the kind of congregation she was trying to understand. Instead, she examined ten congregations in depth (there were 50 involved in a survey instrument but the richest part of the book comes from these congregations). These churches were from Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations. And still, the faith present in these congregations was a far cry from the “anything goes” critique so often tossed toward mainline religion.

The individual chapters explore some common themes the contributed to the vital faith evident in these congregations. Shockingly, she also uses “10 signposts”: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty.

Two sets of “10 signposts” — both books deal with Hospitality, Scripture, Testimony, Justice, Diversity, Beauty, Healing, and Reflection. They may use slightly different words but their messages are the same. There is a vital faith present in Christianity that not defined by culture war arguments nor by blind accommodationism.  It is characterized by authentic faith that is tolerant of multiple views and trusts in the Holy Spirit to assist understanding.

One book written to the evangelical community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. One book written to the mainline community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. Both finding similar metaphors to describe the elements of that faithful life.

It was a wonderful discovery for me. It speaks to the vibrancy of God’s work in our midst. But I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I realize that I read a number of people who are clearly evangelicals and serve in Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran congregations. They certainly aren’t accommodating to the larger culture.

I also see a number of millennial evangelicals finding meaning and satisfaction in more liturgical, more diverse, more complex settings of faith found in some mainline congregations. To see them as abandoning faith is unfair to both them and the churches that attract them.

I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.

This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.

Prodigal Christianity

ProdigalA number of books have significantly helped me as I’ve attempted to imagine how the evangelical church operates without building walls cutting us off from the broader culture, thereby talking primarily to ourselves. One of these I mentioned recently is Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts Into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.

I met David and Geoff at a Missio Alliance gathering in the west suburbs of Chicago last October. I attended the meeting because what I had read of the gathering resonated with what I had been thinking about shifting forms of evangelicalism in post-modern America. So sometime after the meeting, I bought a copy of their book (I’m ashamed to admit it was one of those add-ons to get free shipping from Amazon; but it was more significant than the primary book I was buying!).

It’s not hard to see the driving motif of the book. The Prodigal Son goes into the Far Country. But in this case, drawing on Karl Barth, it’s not the wayward son going forth to riotous living. Rather, it is the Incarnate Son coming into the present world. It becomes one of those Philippians 2 moments, celebrating how Jesus gave up what he had to enter where we are. If we take that seriously, David and Geoff say, our mission as Christians both individually and congregationally is but to do the same.

While intrigued by the engagement offered by the emergent church movement on the one hand, and encouraged by the certainty of the neo-Reformed movement on the other, they find neither quite gets to the Far Country. So they suggest ten signposts that might lead the way. I’ll summarize those mixed in with my own sociological gloss.

Signpost One: Post-Christendom. While debate can be engaged as to whether we were ever a fully Christian nation, it is clear that we’ve entered a period where Christianity is not the default position taken within society. Society, they say, is post-attractioal, post-propositional, and post-universal. These are all byproducts of forms of postmodernism, where my values are right for me but unintelligible to you. The response to this is to be local, to be present, to be incarnational. To be real. To engage. Too much of the Big Issues in evangelicalism take place as abstractions that never quite touch were real people live. This is why David hangs out regularly at McDonalds. He becomes known.

Signpost Two: Missio-Dei. This is a recognition that God is at work reconciling His Kingdom. We should be about the same. It begins with an affirmation that God is currently working. Dave tells a wonderful story of how he played a nearly insignificant role in helping one of the McDonald’s guys deal with a dental issue. It wasn’t about what Dave did but about what God was doing that Dave got to be a piece of. But realizing that God was working might have been more revolutionary for Dave than the guy with the tooth problem.

Signpost Three: Incarnation. Here is a surprising shift. While being at McDonald’s sounds incarnational, it is not Dave and Geoff called to be that. It is the church. Because the church is the Body of Christ, it is continuing the incarnational presence into the broader world, into families that hurt, into people who are confused (even those in the church). This is a profound theological and social psychological understanding that eliminates the need for walls. We really are all in this together.

Signpost Four: Witness. This is one of my favorite chapters and speaks directly to what I’ve been working on. Witness occurs when disciples tell what they have seen, through the guidance of the Spirit. It’s not about answers. It’s about sharing the reasons for faith. It giving testimony that there is something bigger going on that others may not see. Not that Christians know the secret handshake or anything. We become practiced at knowing where to look and tell others what we see. We don’t hold the secret close and tell ourselves how lucky we are to have it. We give testimony to those we meet along the road. Like shepherds or a woman by a well.

Signpost Five: Scripture. Going into the Far Country requires one to have a sense of the Big Story. Not easy proof texts or four spiritual laws but a story of God’s intention, faithfulness, sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing work of reconciliation and restoration. This is the Good News. That story of intention, salvation, reconciliation, and restoration speaks into the lives of those we meet along the way. The problem with our past efforts at bibliocentrism is that those stories don’t impact the lives of people in the Far Country (signpost one). Story matters and when people see that God’s story encompasses their story, things begin to change even if just a little.

Signpost Six: Gospel. This signpost builds heavily on great work by Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright (how can one go wrong with that?). But the Gospel isn’t simply about going to heaven after you die. It’s about the reconciliation of relationships. It’s about seeing that there is Something at work in the world. It’s about how sin isn’t crippling. And it’s about how we all have a role to play with dignity. In short, it repairs lives in the here and now, which makes the imaginings of the life to come possible.

Signpost Seven: Church. This chapter draws heavily upon the ministry experiences of Life on the Vine, the congregation Dave and Geoff pastored (Geoff still does). Wesley called these practices Means of Grace and they are important. Communion and hospitality are central, as are discernment, baptism, reconciliation, and inclusion (expressed in intact families rather than isolating ministries). It is where the church embodies the Body of Christ in order to be Christ in the world (paraphrasing the Methodist Communion liturgy).

Signpost Eight: Welcoming and Transforming Church. This chapter was very interesting and I’m still not sure what all I think about it. The American fascination with, involvement in, and avoidance of, sexuality sits at the center of this signpost. While dismissing an easy accommodation of say, same-sex relationships, on the one hand and a dogmatic exclusion on the other, they call for the Church to be a place where we wrestle with real issues. Where we wind up being authentic with struggles, challenges, and victories in a quest for honest engagement rather than point making.  I’ll need to re-read this one and see what similar applications offer.

Signpost Nine: Prodigal Relationships. This chapter speaks to issues of justice and inequality. Raising concerns about political identification (from left or right) as inadequate roles for the Embodied Church, they instead focus on issues that are local and real. Justice is done in our surroundings, from the celebration of presence that requires humility, and by affirming Christ’s work in restoration. It’s not our work. It’s Gods. We are but instruments, as that other Francis said.

Signpost Ten: Diversity. Interestingly, this last signpost closes the circle to the first one. It outlines how the church works in a non-Christendom environment. Not making walls, through pronouncements of whose views are approved and whose are heresies. But neither it is a “whatever you believe as long as you’re sincere”, as Linus would say. Combining all that has gone before, the church becomes a vehicle for witnessing to the work of God in the world. It sounds remarkably like that “see how they love one another” stuff without the risk of insularity. And it rejects the means-ends efficiency that has dominated Western society. The outcome is God’s through the work of the Spirit and the ascended Christ.

Actually, I meant to keep my gloss much more separate from my interpretation of their argument and instead I interwove things a bit. Nevertheless, Prodigal Christianity is a powerful book for anyone interested in seriously engaging a postmodern, complex, post-Christendom culture in ways that bring glory and honor to God. Buy a copy for your church and study it.

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe picture to the left is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.

I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.

But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.

Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it.

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.

We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.

And we did it for the same two reasons the Tower was built in the first place: Pride and Fear.

Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.

We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.

Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.

I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.

If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.

This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.

In the words of Elmer Fudd, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid.

Fear take us funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?

Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.

We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.

What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. We find them reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).

In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.

I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.

Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.

As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down Those Walls!

The Kingdom of God is at Starbucks

New Starbucks

I drove to the Chicago suburbs on Friday to attend a Mission Alliance conference. The program posed the question: “How do we lead the church into our local neighborhood/context and what do we actually do when we get there?” It was a great time interacting with theology professors, church planters, mainline pastors, seminary students, and community organizers.

We started Friday night by eating dinner at Bishops, a lovely little chili joint in Westmont that has been in the same family since 1925. We didn’t tell them we were coming, but they were great nevertheless. The owner modeled the kinds of things we talk about in terms of servanthood in spite of a room full of conferency folks who didn’t know what they were doing.

After dinner, we went back to the church plant where we were meeting and heard the opening session from Chris Smith on the story of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. For a variety of reasons, the church was in need of healthy dialogue about what bound them together and how they’d articulate their shared identity. That has allowed them to build bridges into the broader Englewood community to partner with various agencies in addressing social needs. You can read more here on your Kindle device for only $2.99.

As I listened to Chris’ presentation, I kept thinking about our assumptions about how the congregation related to the broader community. It seemed like the goal was to work through “issues” in the congregation in preparation for engaging those “out there”. Then new people would come in and we could bring them up to speed on what had transpired over time. But I wondered, why couldn’t we let those “out there” see us in our messiness? Why do we have to clean ourselves up before we engage? Does such an assumption push us into putting on our Halloween masks all year long?

If we do that, it seems that two things result. First, we lose the ability to be authentic with others because we’ve spent so much energy in making sure our masks fit. Second, those “outside” may have serious concerns about their ability to measure up to us (mostly because we didn’t tell them where the mask store is located!).

I’ve played around before with how much energy evangelicals expend in boundary maintenance. Sitting in a church in a western Chicago suburb, I returned to those same questions. How does the church engage? Can we do that without having to persuade others of the superiority of our position? Can we simply connect and leave the convicting and demonstrating to the Holy Spirit?

Saturday morning began at Starbucks as I connected with Michelle Van Loon, who I’ve written about as an internet buddy but hadn’t met. Meeting Michelle proved that the “othering” of the internet still can allow for personal connection. The Holy Spirit had gone before and allowed us to find great commonalities in spite of very diverse backgrounds.

Back at the meeting, David Fitch opened the day by suggesting that we think of the Kingdom  “out there” as a material reality and not a theological possibility. We connect in the authority of the Holy Spirit who is already working in the neighborhood before we get there. David contrasted an approach based on projects with those based on presence. We don’t just do stuff — we are. We relate. He told a story about his connection with one of the guys who is a regular at the McDonald’s he goes to (I don’t like McD’s coffee, so therefore Starbucks is in the title of this piece). The guy was in need and David was able to offer his connectional resources as an investment into the person’s life. It was a Kingdom moment even though nobody talked religion (yet).

The next session dealt with issues of reconciliation, but I was still bothered by the us-them language that showed up in that context. First we separate, then we repent of the separation and look for bridges. Part of that discussion involved the confrontation passages in Matthew 18. Go to the sibling who has wronged you, then take some friends, and finally treat the person as a sinner or tax collector. That sounds like inside/outside language describing what to do when people are out of line. The final stage is be put outside the group. But in the small group discussions, several of us recognized that Jesus gave us a model for dealing with the sinners and tax collectors. He ate with them.

So they weren’t excluded from our company. They were still connected. Their lives are important and significant.

Lunch was catered from a wonderful restaurant down the block from the church (where church folks were regularly engaged, including waitressing there). We gathered around tables in the lower level of the church. Interestingly, the village of Westmont held their annual Halloween walk on Saturday. While we were eating, I could see children in costume and their families walking by the casement windows. All of a sudden I realized how much better the church would be at engaging the neighborhood if we had glass walls on our churches. We could  see the neighbors engaging their lives, they could see us with the messiness of being a community of Grace. Maybe Robert Schuller had part of a good idea. Don’t build a Chrystal Cathedral with sunlight and birds. But find a way to let others see in and for you to see out.

That set up the final session. Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw presented on what it means to Proclaim the Gospel. This Gospel isn’t solely the focus on Sin-Salvation-Service of past evangelism. This is the Gospel but not the complete Gospel. Cyd reflected on Luke 4 and how we are “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor“. When we confront people in need, people who are hurting, people who are fearful, people who despair, we are really telling them: “It isn’t supposed to be like this“. God is restoring his creation in our midst even when we can’t see it.

Geoff followed up with a wonderful illustration of a guy at Starbucks. Someone who struck up a regular conversation, much like David’s McDonald’s friend. Geoff took the opportunity to engage, to explain his own work and commitments. That opened the possibility for the other guy’s life struggles to be authentically shared. The story doesn’t end with a marvelous conversion tableau that can be shared in conferences. It is just the illustration of connecting to another in Jesus’ name. Geoff didn’t have to take the Kingdom to Starbucks because the Kingdom was already there.

I went to the conference to try out an idea I have about how evangelicals can engage a broader culture that doesn’t agree, doesn’t understand, and likely doesn’t care. My thinking is that if we can simply be present and tell our story about God’s Grace, we’d still be playing a vital role in society.

I came away revising my thinking considerably. We don’t begin by being ready to witness. We begin by being aware of the Kingdom around us. Then we find that the stories “out there” aren’t any different than the stories “in here”.

Which was really the Gospel we were trying to Proclaim anyway.