So I live in a very nice area of northwest Houston called The Champions. It gets its name from the prominant country club and golf course by the same moniker. That theme is picked in several neighborhoods in which the streets are named for the world’s great golf courses, for example, or for great tennis champions. As I tell my clergy friends, we’re not exactly “slummin’ for Jesus” around here. And yet, we are called to ministry where we are typically unless we get more specific “Holy Spirit heartburn” about going someplace else. And, as a United Methodist pastor, I’m sent to this particular locale to help the people here grow in faithfulness to God’s calling on our lives collectively. So, here we are in the glory of American suburbia.
Then there’s this conversation I find myself in theologically and spiritually about what it truly means to be the church. Many have heard the term “emerging” or “emerging church” or “emergent church.” It’s all the rage these days…or raged against, depending. Not that I intend to dismiss it as merely trendy, I don’t. But for me, the term “emerging” and its cognates presents something of a moving target (perhaps its supposed to–who knows?). Honestly, the “emerging church” seems about as diverse theologically, maybe moreso, than my own United Methodist Church, which is saying something! Besides, the term “emerging” implies movement and invites this question: Emerging from what?
Best I can tell, there are three pretty good answers to that question–three basic groups that I can see. One group that seems to be consists of folks who are emerging from conservative evangelical churches who have not engaged culture meaningfully and dynamically in their proclamation of the gospel. These folks tend to retain their conservative evangelical theology (typically of the Baptist or Reformed varieties) while “packaging” the message in a way that does engage modern (really “postmodern”) culture meaningfully.
A second group who are “emerging” are like the first group in their theological tradition of origin (conservative evangelical and either Baptist or Reformed–Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc) and who likewise resonate with presenting the gospel in ways that engage the broader culture more meaningfully. A difference, then, between this group and the one above is that they seem to be engaging other theological traditions more meaningfully as well. They seem discontented with some aspects of the theological conversation/wrestling that does or, probably more often the case, does not happen in the churches from which they come, so they are learning to read and think alongside Catholics and Wesleyans and such. They now draw on the Early Church Fathers for spiritual help and theologians outside of their own traditions for help wrestling with the big (and small too) questions of faith and doubt. They recognize that the churches and theological traditions from which they come are a mixture of blessing and curse. There are wonderful gifts but they have serious limitations as well.
A third group comes from theological traditions who would tend to be open to the theological searching of the “emerging church movement” and who are emerging from church traditions that are heavily organized and thoroughly beaureacratic. The United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations are good examples of this. This group is looking for more organic models of being and doing church that can be more responsive to the mission of the church in the rapidly changing world in which we live, something that massive beaureacracies are by nature unable to do.
There are plenty of folks who would probably be interested in nuancing one of those descriptions to fit themselves better, but I think those hold up well enough to provide a basic handle on the discussion.
A word, however, that is surfacing alongside “emerging” is “missional.” Being “missional” is a distinctive feature of most emerging folks. And, for myself, as the name of this blog indicates, I resonate with the term “missional” more than the term “emerging” because it seems more straightforward to get a grasp on–churches and persons committed to be led by the mission of God revealed in content and method in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ–than “emerging.” So, I spend time thinking about what that means really, to be committed to be led by the mission of God revealed in content and method in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Moreover, I spend time thinking about what that means for me in the place I am currently sent to serve and lead.
Really, what on earth does “incarnational” ministry look like in the land of plenty? These are the parts of town Jesus seemed to avoid for the sake of other places of deeper need. What does it look like to be shaped by the content of Jesus’ teaching and the doctrines that illumine for us his purpose and saving significance AND to be shaped by the methodology of God in Jesus? God’s method in Christ is clear–give up everything in order to bring good news to those in deep need here on earth (check Philippians 2:1-11 for Paul’s brilliant description).
But what do we mean by “those in deep need here on earth?” Aren’t we all in deep need spiritually speaking? This is certainly true, but Christ did spend more time among the rural poor than anyone else, all the while training his disciples and other hangers-on in God’s perspective with every opportunity available. A cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that the wealthy and privileged are least likely to “get it” when we’re talking about learning God’s perspective.
Which brings us back to this quandry I’ve got over how to be “missional” in American suburbia. How does one take up one’s cross and carry on the ministry of Jesus in the land of plenty? I’m working on that (and not a simple, glib answer either–an answer that takes the gravity of the question seriously).
I do think arriving at an answer starts with openness, honestly, and vulnerability in community. And in that, I am blessed. Our Sunday School class (when I’m able to be there and am without other responsibilities during that time) has been able to exhibit these qualities as of late. Two subjects have provided the right amount of discomfort as to help us with this. First, prayer. Guided by Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?, we are opening up and getting real about our faith and doubts and struggles with the mystery of God and his ways. Prayer, ethereal though it seems, is one of the rubber-meets-the-road subjects in the Christian faith (or any other I suppose) in which the true state of our soul is laid bare if we dare to be honest about our feelings on the subject, if only to ourselves. People have graced the conversation with candid struggles and experiences, allowing us to be more real about where we all are. The second subject is giving and stewardship. Our church is entering a capital campaign, so the annual stewardship emphasis is a larger production. Alongside vision awareness gatherings and a sermon series, we are doing stewardship bible studies during Sunday School and offering small groups for it. Money, taboo though it is, quite obviously provides enough discomfort to either chase us back into our shells or draw us into deeper levels of intimacy with each other as we get real about our spiritual journeys and walks with Christ. Good stuff. Today was day one of the stewardship study; two more to go.
Somehow, I think we will discover the path to a truly missional existence anywhere, but particularly in the ‘burbs, runs through the place where the community begins to get real with one another about our lives in God. That’s the place where we are most ready to meet Christ as he really is, which means hearing the gospel on its terms better than we ever have.