A friend of mine who is also in pro-min (that's my new short way of saying professional ministry, but since I had to explain it I really lost any need to be witty, didn't I?) recently emailed me this query:
Hey Tony! How is all over there in church planting land?
I have been thinking, reading and discussing the emergent church stuff lately... With your contact with some from the movement, can I shoot you some questions? I will take that as a yes...because of the long pause :-)
With all the "postmodern" thinking and theological bent, I understand all the arguments for epistemology "beyond foundationalism" etc. but aren't there some certainties in our theology? I get the feeling that those in the E-Village do not want to nail down some doctrines of the faith based on Biblical and Historical roots. Specifically in regards to Jesus being the only way to have eternal life or the Scriptures being inspired and without error. Is universalism an option for Tony Jones, Brian McLaren etc.?
I have appreciated many of their thoughts about justice, the Kingdom, inclusion and love, but is it at the cost of Truth and Doctrines? Have many of the great theologians of the past been wrong all this time? What is your take on all of it?
Thanks man. I value your wisdom.
Ah... here's where the rubber meets the road for me, isn't it?
Let's start with some personal history.
- I grew up loosely Catholic, bordering on atheism for several seasons of high school. Then I got slammed by grace when Jesus Christ allowed me to encounter him during my junior year. Through a process, I came to place my faith in Him because of a rather innovative church who spoke concrete Truth into my life in a way that was absolutely relevant and refreshing.
- After high school, I wrestled with a call to pro-min because I knew squat about God and the Bible compared to everyone else. I realized, though, that in such matches the Lord has a way of winning (lest you walk away with a limp). It took me a year, and I finally gave in... which meant (given my personality) that I was intentionally enlarging my capacity to sponge up everything that I could about God, the Bible, theology, church history, contemporary methodology, shepherding others, and loving people with the kind of love Jesus demonstrated and the Holy Spirit has empowered me for.
- My first experience in ministry was at the aforementioned church, which has always been something I look back on with excessive gratefulness. Although I would eventually figure out the educational side of all of this, those initial years out of high school for me were beyond formative... because of the church's capacity and its integrity among national and international ministries, it was like hoping you're going to be a reporter and then getting a job at the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times. Simply by rubbing shoulders with the people I rubbed shoulders with, God chiseled things into me and out of me that I'd have to beg for in any other context.
I took a job as a third shift janitor at the church, which took things a step further - for I was able to study the habits of the pastors I looked up to... I hate to admit it, but you learn a lot about a guy by cleaning up his office. Add to that eight hours every night of listening to audio teaching from the Bible on every topic imaginable and I was morphing around the clock.
- Finally, school... I needed to settle that issue as well as matters of ordination. To answer both, I jumped into a denomination that helped me take the next steps of processing theology with an anchor of common agreement. I noticed, though, that because I didn't grow up in that denomination I had a wider-eyed view of what it was teaching than those who seemed to be working up the ranks of the system. No matter, though, for no system is perfect and yet God chooses to use any theological system that attempts to root itself in the Bible as a complementary tool to keep us ever hearing but never understanding, not to mention ever seeing but never perceiving.
Every one of us should have a "lover's quarrel" with whatever theological system we're in - "lover" to be a proponent of its motives, and "quarrel" to be sure that its conclusions are God-sized and not human-sized.
- One blessing school afforded me was a study trip to Israel after graduation. This was a scholarship I'd been nominated for, which basically meant all I had to worry about was food and incidentals. My wife and I had been married two years at this point, and someone paid for her to go as well... which is a trip neither of us could have even imagined we could take part in ever. Somewhere in between climbing Mount Masada and standing on the first-century cobblestones of the cell Jesus was beaten in, I resolved that whatever ministry I would be involved in would be God's. Perhaps this is to be assumed of every pastor, but what it meant for me is that I would continue to ask a simple question with complex application every day of my life - "Is whatever this is (i.e. this church, this theology, this idea, etc) of God or man?"
We'll come back to that question later.
- At some point in my journey, I started to question if the modern approach to ministry was all there is... is the concrete teaching it offered (i.e. "The Bible says it, that settles it") our only tool to share redemptive love and transformation? Should we debate people into the Kingdom and jeer at their "idiocy" if they believe anything other than what we do? Is giving people "fill in the blank" outlines really the best way they learn? Might there be a better goal than getting people to become faithful attenders of church things? Is Christian music really better than non-Christian music... and what makes music "Christian," anyway?
I asked questions like this for I noticed that most people around me wanted to "wash, rinse, and repeat" what had "worked" for many years than generate and invest the spiritual calories required to remain authentic and useful in a changing world. This was a problem, for what reached out to people in my generation wasn't connecting as it once did with the emerging one.
And as a side note, the word "emerging" isn't a bad word - it's an indicative word that describes "what's next," whether we like it or not, based on certain catalysts that bring it about.
Also, please note that all of this this was a question of methodology - not theology.
- Around this time I had struck up some friendships with some people who were asking similar questions. I was immesely thankful for the conversation, and especially grateful that we could engage in such talks about methodology that helped us ask risky questions about our theology.
I know, I know... hang with me.
Jesus said that the fruit of a tree tells us something about the tree, so it stands to reason that if our methods need examination that we should equally examine what led us there in the first place. For instance, there is a great discussion right now on another blog about the role fear plays in trying to convert someone... should it? If you read the comments on that blog you will quickly find that it's more a theological question than a methodological one.
So maybe the question isn't "Should we question our theology?" - maybe the question is "Why shouldn't we?" or "What does our reluctance to do so reveal?" I think sometimes we secure ourselves to creeds more than we do to Christ... which is perhaps why Jesus once told a rather theological young man that he was "not far from the Kingdom of God." I wonder if that guy took it as a compliment... when it was in the same breath a declaration that he wasn't yet over that line.
In simple terms, it's easier to become a "follower of followers of Christ" than it is to follow Christ.
- Finally, those conversations took on life... for we weren't just talking about the "how to" but the "why to." Isn't that what's most important? For whatever reason, most of my peers in ministry wanted to figure God out by copying and pasting creeds from the denomination, statements of faith from another church, or the conclusions of historical Christians.
I am careful in saying that by quickly following it up with this disclaimer - I support this effort, as long as we don't put periods at the end of such creeds, statements of faith, or church father conclusions.
Isn't the point to instead honor their theological sweat with some of our own that continues the journey? Or should we just inherit our the "family business" and never innovate... take it into the next century... rethink the methods of how we go about it and the ideas that got us into it in the first place?
Lest we end up attempting to treat real diseases with Coca-Cola instead of Penicillin?
This was refreshing.
At least... for a while.
More to come.