Friday, February 23, 2007

Still Wondering about "Emergent"

I want to say "Thank you" for your recent comments. I really appreciate hearing what others have to say.

Stemming from a lot of different motivations, and as you can tell, I am deeply interested in what is being called the Emerging or Emergent Church. Regarding the so-called EC, I did a couple of posts last summer. They are here and here.

For now, my plan is to do a lot more reading and listening and less writing about this. However, I do want to add a follow-up to yesterday's post about the Emergent Church.

The leaders within this movement would be the first to admit that there's a real sense in which the EC has never been and will never be a church per se. My contention is that the other word "emergent" is likewise an overstatement or misnomer.

Why? First, a disclaimer. Admittedly, I am looking at the phenomenon called the EC not as a "member" (where would one go to join?) though I am sympathetic to some of its emphases and directions. Nor am I a well-read student of the EC.

I enter this discussion mainly as a student of American Christianity in the 20th and, now, 21st centuries. And here's what I see. The sociologist David Moberg has described a certain group of theologically-conservative Protestant Christians . . .

"whose stance is more of a 'spirit' than a well defined theology as they advocate an interest in human beings as whole persons (not just 'souls' to be saved) in active Christian involvement in sociopolitical affairs, including the revolutionary struggles of our day, in new forms of worship, . . . in reappraising life values, and in opposition to the idolatry of nationalism and the judging of spiritual commitment by external culturally defined appearances and participation. They thus draw close in political, social, cultural, and even theological concerns to many of the priorities of 'mainstream . . . liberalism'."

Sounds familiar, yes? Moberg's description was published in 1975. And he's summarizing the observations found in Richard Quebedeaux's book The Young Evangelicals, published in 1974 (the year, by the way, that Brian McLaren turned eighteen).

So my take is that what we're looking at in what is described as the Emergent Church is not particularly "emergent." The sort of discontinuity suggested by that term is, in my opinion, unwarranted.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Not-So-Emergent Emergent Church

e-mer-gent - "in the process of coming into being"

I've been wondering. What exactly is it about the so-called "Emergent Church" that's so different from the neo-evangelical variety of Christianity that's been around since about 1940?

So far, my answer is "Nothing." What I mean is, most everything I've seen so far of what's called "emergent" is nothing more than the new face of evangelicalism.

No, I haven't read McLaren's book A New Kind of Christian. But what I have seen and heard from the leaders of "emerging churches" so far tells me that what we're looking at is new people offering an early-21st century take on evangelicalism.

Now, that can be exciting and invigorating. And it is. But it's not essentially different or new. What am I missing?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Church Growth and Christian Ethics

In yesterday's post, I brought up the subject of ethics and evangelism. Here's a follow-up.

Sixteen years ago I was a student in Dr. Evertt Huffard's "Church Growth" class at Harding Graduate School of Religion. One of the class hand-outs was a single page with the title: Biblical Principles for the Ethics of Church Growth.

I still remember how this short list impressed me at the time. Since then, I've tweaked the language a bit and made it a little more my own. Here's the latest revision:

Principle 1: Ethics of Ownership and Responsibility

The church belongs to Christ, and not to people. Every Christian, each member of the body of Christ, is under ethical obligation to responsibly use his or her talents, resources, opportunities, and gifts to keep the Lord's body healthy, reproducing, and serving.

Principle 2: Ethics of Motivation

Every Christian is motivated by divine love to honor God among all nations. Because "selfism" and manipulation are not characteristic of the divine nature, the Lord's servants refuse to exploit people for personal benefit. The primary motivation for church growth then becomes sacrificial service for the glory of God.

Principle 3: Ethics of Methodology

God has always been faithful to his own nature in redeeming humanity. Likewise, his servants do not use means that are not in harmony with the divine nature. Both our methods and our goals in church growth are subject to divine judgment.

Principle 4: Ethics of Personal Relationships

People are more important than things. The interest in church growth, therefore, is not the expansion of an institution but the reconciliation of men and women to God and to others.

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As I read those words again these days, all sorts of passages from the Bible come to mind. I think that this is something churches could flesh out in order to teach and guide its would-be evangelists.

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

U.S. Churches of Christ at a Standstill

The latest issue of The Christian Chronicle includes a story about the marginal numeric growth of the Churches of Christ in the United States.

From 1980 to 2006, the U.S. population rose by more than 32%. In the same period of time, Churches of Christ grew in number; but only by 1.6%. You can read the article here.

Naturally, a lot of insiders are talking about the causes of the stagnation. Some of that analysis is found at the end of that first article. You can read additional responses and comments here.

A teacher-n-preacher type within this group, I've had two main thoughts about all this:

1. It's obvious that the strong and sweeping doctrinal consensus that once characterized the Churches of Christ and that, more importantly, is/was constitutive of its identity, has disintegrated. It certainly feels like that trend will continue. And it doesn't seem like Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again.

That's the dire side of it. In spite of that observation, though, what continues to amaze me is the stubbornness of tradition (ours and everyone's). I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing. I'm just saying that it is. I mean, for all of the positive differences that "progressive" Churches of Christ see in themselves, are they really that different? I don't think so.

2. Increasingly, I have little patience for the idea that I've heard so many times now: "We've got to start evangelizing so that we (our congregation, our world-wide group) can survive." Is that ever a motivation for Christian mission in, say, the Book of Acts? When does that sentiment cross the line between "wrong-headed" and "idolatrous"? Why don't more of our church leaders recognize how unChristian it is to try to attract and convert people to Christ so that we can have more people in the pews and, above all, more givers? How would you like to be the target of such "evangelism"? Lord, deliver us from self-centeredness.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Evangelical Confusion about the Bible

More than twenty years have passed. But it doesn't seem like much has changed.

I'm talking about what historian Mark Noll described in one of his articles, "Evangelicalism and the Study of the Bible" (in Evangelicalism and Modern America, edited by George Marsden. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984).

Here's the gist of the article. Noll begins by listing four signs of a growing intellectual strength among evangelical Christians in the decades leading up to the mid-1980s:

1. Evangelical teachers have earned world-class academic credentials. Noll chronicles the meteoric rise of academic qualifications among the Bible and religion faculties in evangelical schools. He points to the Word Biblical Commentary series, launched in 1983, which combines evangelical theological commitment with first-rate scholarship.

2. Evangelical scholars regularly make presentations at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, and publish their work in serials like the Journal of Biblical Liturature, New Testament Studies, etc., the world's best scholarly journals.

3. The Evangelical Theological Society was founded in 1949. Then followed the Wesleyan Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the North American Theological Students Fellowship.

4. Evangelicals have published a tremendous amount of material. No, not all of the books and magazines are purely academic. But, there are two important characteristics of much of this work: (a) It is moreless intellectually-engaged. (b) It does not exhibit a combative or fortress mentality.

Achievements. Institutions. Proliferation. However, when it comes to specific questions of biblical scholarship, there is a lack of consensus among evangelicals as to what is permissable and what is not. Such confusion seems to maintain a tension between Jerusalem (revelation and faith) and Athens (human reason and discovery) among evangelicals.

F. F. Bruce--in his time, the dean of the world's evangelical scholars-- once spoke of the "Maginot-line mentality where the doctrine of Scripture is concerned" (p. 110). That is to say, in addition to a commitment to the general truthfulness of Scripture, there also exists on any number of questions a body of tradition regarding the correct construal and interpretation of the Bible. (What Noll refers to here includes matters of Introduction, questions like the unity and authorship of the Books of Isaiah and Daniel, etc., as well as the more general question of the historicity of the biblical narratives).

And, says Noll, this defensive sort of posture seems to be in evangelical blood, as witnessed by the strong reactions of even moderate evangelicals to the publication of the RSV in the 1940s and 50s (pp. 110-111).

Noll also lists five specific indicators of the confusion within evangelicalism on the relationship between the Bible and modern learning:

1. Robert Gundry's redaction-critical approach to the Gospel of Matthew (published in 1982). (To the extent that redcation criticism builds on form criticism, most evangelicals would reject it because of what these approaches assume about the Four Gospels).

2. James D. G. Dunn , an avowed evangelical, has said that the evangelical concept of biblical inerrancy is "exegetically improbable, heremeneutically defective, theological dangerous, and educationally disastrous."

3. Bernard Ramm positively reported and explained the the thought of Karl Barth to Ramm's evangelical audience.

4. J. Ramsey Michaels got fired from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (an evangelical institution) for suggesting in one of his books that the deeds and words ascribed to Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospels may not have occurred.

5. Some of the volumes in Word Biblical Commentary series give room to views about the authorship and historicity of the Bible that evangelicals have historically regarded as being damnably modernistic. (For example, the volumes on the Pentateuch typically assume and operate on the Documentary Hypothesis. This kind of scholarship assumes the disunity of the Pentateuch, and would deny that Moses wrote all or even most of it).

So much for Noll and his observations. Here are some of my own questions:

1. I know that the word "evangelical" is a lot like "Baskin-Robbins." There are dozens of flavors. However, all of the B-R flavors happen to be ice cream (when they're not sherbet, of course. Doh!). Okay, assuming that the term "evangelical" refers to something identifiable --you can toss the term out, but it ain't going away-- what does "evangelical" signify when it comes to the questions that Noll is pointing to?

For example, can you believe that Isaiah 40-66 wasn't written by the Isaiah of chapters 1-39 and still be, descriptively, an evangelical? The question might seem silly, but Noll is right to imply that evangelicals really need to sort what they think (or will allow to be thought) and why. It goes to questions like academic freedom, what gets taught in classrooms and from the pulpit, job security, personal integrity, a consistent word for an effective mission, the list goes on.

2. Why don't more people who profess a trust in Christ and a high view of Scripture care about and look into these things? Even among our preacher-teacher types (intellectual leaders, if we have them) there seems to be a dearth of interest in and attention given to these kinds of questions. Do they just not matter? If they do, to what extent do they matter?

I know, I know, scholars and academically-oriented preachers ask different questions than does the typical worshiper. But can't evangelical scholarship get its story straight when it comes to what the guidelines are or should be? And why don't the questions of biblical Introduction or, say, chronology ever come up in preaching and teaching ministries? Of course, I'm going on my experience mostly. But it seems like I heard references, when I was kid, to "Paul's second Roman imprisonment." I haven't heard that expression in church in 30 years. Is that good? Bad? Indifferent? Whatever your answer, I know it's not because people today have less leisure time or less access to resources.

These are things I wonder about. What do you think?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

New Article by J. J. M. Roberts

"For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).

Yesterday's mail included the latest volume of Christian Studies (number 21). It's published by Austin Graduate School of Theology, and is billed as "a publication of the faculty."

I've always liked this journal. It's primary audience seems to be other scholars and preachers among the Churches of Christ. And although informed by good scholarship, the articles tend to be non-technical. Best of all, they usually deal with topics that are interesting and important to the main audience.

This latest issue contains an article by J. J. M. Roberts, "The Importance of the Old Testament for the Church." In case you don't recognize Roberts' name, he's one of the better O.T. scholars around these days, certainly one of the finest ever produced by the Churches of Christ. This latest essay of his packs a wallop. Here's the first paragraph:

"The emphasis in the Restoration tradition on 'rightly dividing the Word,' on recognizing the different dispensations reflected in scripture, on seeing a clear distinction between the old and new covenant was a correct and important insight, but even correct insights drag in their wake unintended, incorrect, and harmful consequences. In the Restoration tradition the emphasis on being under the new covenant has led to a serious neglect and even disparagement of the Old Testament as of no relevance for modern believers. Patently false dichotomies between Law in the Old Testament versus Grace in the New, a God of Wrath in the Old Testament versus a God of Love in the New Testament, harsh punishment in the Old Testament versus forgiveness in the New, etc. have been widely passed off as true largely because the Old Testament has been little read and seldom seriously studied in our tradition. One does not need to listen long in a typical Bible class to hear such negative, uninformed stereotypes about the Old Testament scriptures, and it is not unusual to hear the complaint that classes on an Old Testament book or sermons on an Old Testament text are a waste of time. After all, as New Testament Christians, of what relevance is the Old Testament to our lives?"

What preacher in the Church of Christ can't relate to that? (That's assuming the preacher isn't one who's perpetuating the problem).

The article goes on to explain that Churches of Christ aren't the only ones with this problem. In fact, there have been worse cases. Roberts mentions especially Marcion in the second century, and Adolf von Harnack in the nineteenth. And don't think that where you come out on this question doesn't make that much difference. Roberts points out that Harnack's "theological hostility to the Old Testament was taken up by a significant portion of German Old Testament scholarship, providing ready-made weapons for the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich."

Roberts goes on to explain the genuine place of the Old Testament in Christianity and its Bible. Towards the end, he demonstrates how the variety of the O.T. actually makes it a rich resource and corrective for people who rarely move away from a narrow vision of what the New Testament teaches.

If you've gotten the latest issue of Christian Studies, be sure to read the article. If you don't receive the journal, you can get a free subscription. See the links on the left side of the School's home page. They even send out back issues for (bargain alert!) $3 a piece. You can see the article titles in past issues, again, at the website.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Reading and Writing (and Vice Versa)

A new article by Old Testament scholar Carolyn J. Sharp got me thinking about the importance of writing. The title of the piece is "Voiced in Paradox: Prophecy and the Contemporary Church" [published in Reflections (Winter 2006) pp. 10-13]. Here's a taste:

"Go now; write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, so that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever" (Isaiah 30:8).

"The Israelite prophets shouted God's Word from Temple gate and city square; they pleaded with kings and wrestled with priests. They performed the terror of God's Word using rotting figs, shattered pottery, barley cakes baked on camel dung, . . .

"Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea offered all of themselves in their efforts to become transparent to God's purposes. They knew that trenchant tones and vivid tableaux could fire the spiritual imagination, could draw the believer irresistibly into an encounter with the will of God. But displays of brilliant oratory and dramatic technique were only the beginning. The prophets also wrote. They wrote poetry and stories and exhortations and prayers. They risked writing in order that the power of God's Word might reach peoples near and far, contemporary and yet unborn."

As Sharp points out, preaching--and, yes, with lots of potent visuals--can be vital and effective. But prophecy is maximized and extended, sometimes in unbelievable ways, only when the prophet writes.

The true prophetic voice comes from not only seeing that the world is terribly twisted. It also comes from catching a vision of what must change so that the kingship of God, His rightful rule in the world He created, will more completely have its way.

I'm glad for the true prophets I've met in the blogosophere. Like the prophets I read in the Bible, I like some blogging prophets better than others. Some of them seem clearer, more powerful to me. Still, for each one who speaks a true word for God, I'm thankful.

Brothers and sisters: Write on!

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For a couple of reasons that I won't go into, for the time being I've decided to keep my blog with Blogger. For now, "Frankly Speaking" is staying here.

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I'm planning to start a book club that will meet here in Amarillo. If it takes off like I hope it will, regular participants will have the opportunity to nominate and decide on what books we'll read and discuss going forward. To start, though, I have to make the decision. My choice is a book that I hope will establish the tone and expectation for the group.

I've selected Mark Noll's, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It's a book I've wanted to digest for a long time now. From what I understand, it's central thesis is that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there's not much of one; that Evanglicalism has lost a lot of the intellectual rigor that characterized the movement decades ago. I'd like to meet with a group dedicated to being a part of the solution.

I think I would like the pace of maybe five or six meetings in a year's time; a meeting once every other month, but none between, say, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. During the first year, the group could read and discuss one book from certain categories like:

1. Bible/theology
2. Discipleship/spirituality
3. Fiction
4. Christian mission/world Christianity
5. History (religious or otherwise)

Anyway, if you're within striking distance of Amarillo and would like to receive notices about the club, please send me your email address. You can access "Email me" in the right column here at "Frankly Speaking."