These are some thoughts that I, a 30 year old youth pastor, have been thinking about in terms of the emerging church. I hesitate to dip my toe into the deep waters, but I might as well jump in head first. The following are my thoughts and concerns that come out of my desire to grasp how God is moving in our world. If there is an indictment here it is of myself – because I have, at one point or another, ascribed my thinking to all the issues that follow.
Revisiting the past
I hear from emerging church leaders that the key to our future will be found in revisiting the past. If we would only look to what the « ancient » church did we will see a window into Jesus’ intent for what we really should be as a community. It is an « ancient-future » mindset. Basically, it is a wholesale rejection of the modern form of church and a desire to pick up where the Renaissance left off.
Revisiting ancient worship
Some seek to connect our current culture with « ancient » worship experiences. This often provides the participant with a profound mystical worship experience. It is an otherworldly retreat from the hectic pace of our North American culture.
It may be dangerous to assume that we can have a concept today of the reality of ancient forms of worship. At best we have our own self constructed feeling of what it was like. We also have no idea if those forms of worship served to focus the church on mission, or simply contributed to a growing sense of disengagement and separation of the laity from the form and function of Church ministry.
Secondly, the desire to recreate ancient forms of worship can tend towards the desire to find integrity and authenticity out of a seeming participation in an ancient faith, rather than a church that seeks after the reality of God’s current movements within our own culture. It is a playing at older forms of dress, language and movement. If our authenticity is found in what we do, as opposed to who we truly are, then worship becomes theatre as we seek to act in ways that make us appear to have travelled through time to call the church back to « the way it was. »
Thirdly, we may be placing the reality of Christian experience in a constructed ancient culture which may constrain our faith to a separate constructed reality. If our worship and faith experience is founded in a culture that no longer exists, then we have a faith that gets lost in the grind of daily life in the 21st century. The problem that the emerging church is attempting to avoid – a modern church disconnected from current cultural realities – is compounded by an even more culturally distant and self-created expression of divine encounter.
This expression of ancient in modern is typified by a recent emerging church video that I saw in which someone played the U2 video « Vertigo. » For the first ¾ of the video they had included frenetic images of our current reality [downtown New York, Iraq war images, smog, cars on a freeway, etc.] The last ¼ was overlaid with images from some Jesus movie with Jesus slowly walking through the desert saying nice things, all the while U2 playing heavy in the background. This was presented as a great « post-modern » expression connecting Jesus with today’s reality. The problem was that Jesus could not have seemed any more disconnected from the loud, industrialized frenzy of modern society. How could someone caught in the midst of all the chaos see a white guy walking the desert 2000 years ago as someone who understands and empathizes with them?
Where is our modern reality of Jesus? Where is the Jesus who drives a car? Where is the Jesus who knows what it is to be « downsized » by a faceless corporation? If we don’t a have a reality of Jesus in this culture, then this culture will never embrace the reality of Jesus. Sorry for the bumper sticker formulation of the last statement. I believe in a Jesus who 2000 years ago died on a cross and rose from the dead, but that can’t be the end of it. To truly be the church we need to believe in a Jesus who is manifested here and now. If we can’t see him now, we will never effectively communicate him now.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I bought into the phrase « O for the days when the church was the greatest patron of the arts. » It didn’t take a long look at church history to see that those were the days when the church became so focused on attaining beauty and wealth for themselves that they completely disengaged from doing the ministry that Jesus modelled. How many were starving and dying when the church was pouring their resources into paintings, sculpture and music? Don’t get me wrong, I like and appreciate art. I just hope that if it comes to having a new piece of art or feeding the homeless guy on the church steps, that I will always, always choose the latter.
If our churches are about art, music, or anything other than the mission that God has called us to we will cease to be a church and instead become a storehouse of earthly treasure. We will become like the great big beautiful ancient churches of Europe where the insides are adorned with every kind of priceless artifact. They lack nothing but the most priceless artifact of all, people.
Function or Form?
I have a feeling that the « emerging church » is not as far from the mega-church model as it tends to think. I am concerned, in talking to many emerging church planters, that there is a very modern church response to the question « What does your church do? » I hear responses like:
« We are a house church. » « We are an arts church. »
« We are a pub church. » « We use a lectionary. »
« We are music driven. » « We don’t use a lectionary. »
« We never do music. » « We don’t preach. »
My concern is that the « emerging church » is leaning heavily towards form over function. The search for relevancy is being found in the externals.
Willow Creek Church is often used as an example for the emerging church of a « customer » driven, all flash and little substance type of church. If the emerging church focuses its energy on doing Sunday differently to draw people in our culture, then they are doing that which they denigrate. I feel strongly that God is calling young men and women to be Christ to a community and let that community organically find their expression of worship to God. I do not believe that God calls us to worship him in a set way and then see if anyone comes. Jesus’ function in the world was not to worship God as ministry, but to worship God in ministry. If God’s desire was for us to solely worship Him, he would make us do it. God desires men and women who, out of a transforming relationship with Him, seek to love and serve the world. That is our greatest act of worship. Our form should never dictate our function, it’s the other way around.
A new church plant should invest every bit of their time into who God is calling them to and how God is calling them to reach those people. A church plant that discusses Sunday morning before it discusses Sunday afternoon to Saturday night is looking to cater to its own personal liturgical preferences. It is more a reaction to modern Christianity than it is a theology for a given culture.
Paul Millar is the Youth Pastor at Arlington Woods FMC in Ottawa, Ontario.