In Which I Appear to Remain Reactionary

Why is it that everything I read about Emergent gives me heartburn?

It disturbs me to find that every time a fine person such as my friend Jan at A Church for Starving Artists quotes or expands upon or further explicates Emergent thinking, I find myself frustrated or worse.

Jan has a great post about what it means to get "out there" and meet the unchurchy world. Now that I have been serving in a smaller town for four months and listening to the stories of church members about the place of the church in the community in the past, I wonder if one of the reasons we feel disconnected from the community is not because the church has closed itself off but because the church is increasingly unwelcome in the community itself?

First, I’m speaking of mainline churches, since that’s where I exist, but I want us all to think back to a time when having the local pastor pray at graduation was a given, when a visit by a church youth worker to the public school might have been no big deal, when for those of us in New England the Congregational church was the town church and when the hospital called your pastor to say you were in the hospital.

Privacy, separation of church and state, what else has marked the divide between the church and the rest of the community?

I know the members of Main Street Church are puzzled by becoming so apparently irrelevant. They don’t quite know what to do. Is it really as simple as sending the pastor to sit at Aroma Joe’s? (That’s our local excellent coffee shop.)

I imagine the kind of outreach Jan describes would actually be easier in Old Mill Town, given its size. The pastor could become more easily recognizable than in a big city, and listening for what is really going on would be less complicated, too. Church members teach in the local schools or work in the local businesses. A smaller town church can really know its neighborhood in a more meaningful way.

However…the people who sit in the pews of most mainline churches in decline show limited thinking about reaching out to the community. They still seem to believe that starting a youth group will actually make youth appear, with no effort from the rest of the congregation. They want more young families, they really do, but have they looked at the demographics in their area?

So, people who already go to church think old ways will work, while people out in the community are clearly saying they do not by voting with their feet. Mainline churches struggle with how to identify themselves. How can identity be an issue, they wonder? We’re the church on Main Street or on the hill or right downtown on the green! Recently Old Mill Town decided to buy a clock to put in front of Town Hall, since "our town doesn’t have a clock." Yes, it does! It’s in the steeple of Main Street Church!

Now, I’m doing an Interim, so my task is not helping the church to do long-range planning but rather to hold up the mirror for them about who they are now and to help them come to terms with what they have been in the past. Sometime next year a new settled pastor will arrive and begin living into the future with them. But I cannot help thinking in my own way about what may be (small e) emerging at and for Main Street Church, about how MSC’s gifts and resources might be put to good use for Old Mill Town, about what God might be calling MSC to be in this particular time in its particular place.

To me, that’s what "emerging" is, an act of resurrection, a leaving behind of the cocoon of Christendom, a spreading of brightly colored wings and a flight into a new reality.

14 thoughts on “In Which I Appear to Remain Reactionary”

  1. Hi Songbird —
    I think you have a more difficult situation in Old Mill Town, because chances are that things besides the church have changed. And it’s hard to figure out whether to try to rekindle whatever has been lost or move on to something new.
    I have a friend who is leaving her called position after about 5 years (she thought it would be longer) because who they said they were (in the interview) was not who they really were. They said they wanted to change/grow/do outreach, when they just didn’t. They liked the thought of those things but didn’t really want to do the work involved. And when she believed them and tried to make changes accordingly, it didn’t work. It was too big a paradigm shift.
    I think our (Mainliners) loss of influence in the world has as much to do with our conservative/megachurch friends as with our own issues. It was true for a time that when news forums wanted “a Christian voice” in Big Discussions about important things, they would bring in somebody like Jerry Falwell or Ted Haggard (in the old days) and those guys did not resonate with most people. “If they are the Christians, then maybe I don’t want to be Christian.”
    You are doing a good job there if you are helping them figure out who they really are. That’s huge, and it will mean everything to the next called pastor if the congregation really has a clear and true sense of this. In the meantime, just love your people . . . as well as the ones who don’t show up. ((I’m so sorry if I contributed to the heart burn.))

  2. No, no, it’s not you. I’m fascinated that you feel so comfortable with the people in the movement, because they seem to give me a rash of unknown origin. I went to the blog of the guy to whom you linked and also to the other piece you linked, and all I saw were a lot of big words strung together that don’t seem to have any relationship to meeting people where they are, something I try to do every day in my ministry. I guess I think it’s too easy to say we can do it by going to the coffee shop, especially when it’s a coffee shop (and this is as true of Aroma Joe’s as Starbucks) where the cup of joe costs five bucks. I’m not sure what that has to do with feeding the sheep. But maybe I’m approaching that metaphor in a dangerously literal fashion. Ack!

  3. I suspect that “going to the coffee shop” is symbolic shorthand for something much larger, in exactly the same way that MSC’s overlooked clock tower is.

  4. You mention the “cocoon of Christendom.” I will say that the death of Christendom, IMHO, is a good thing that will lead to genuine faith and discipleship in the end. (Of course, I don’t know MSC or Old Mill Town or anything about your context – I’m just seeing this from my own). It takes WORK to build and maintain authentic Christian community in these post-Christendom days, and I’ll admit that I have little patience for those in my care who either a) don’t realize it or b) don’t want to work at it.
    For me, ‘going to the coffee shop’ is the actual quest to meet people where they are, as you said; it’s just a different way of doing it. For me, it’s just being in the community in many different ways, sometimes doing stuff that seems a bit “out there” in order to deflate the pretentiousness of Christendom Christianity. I’ll admit I probably enjoy shocking people a bit more than is healthy, but dammit, sometimes we need to get shocked out of our comfort zones! (often because comfort zones are actually illusions we’ve created for ourselves)
    Now I’m rambling – sorry! In the end I think you and Jan are really after the same thing in different settings. Emergent is by and large an urban phenomenon at the moment, while I and thee live in a much less urban setting, if I’m reading you right, Songbird. But I’ve learned much from Emergent and hope you will too!

  5. This is the sort of thing my father has been working with ever since his retirement. He’s in an interim position now, too (at 80!), helping a congregation get over a traumatic time in its history, and decide how it wants to define itself from here.
    You and he would enjoy talking about this, I think.

  6. I read this the day after attending a lecture by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and several other works that explore our steady disengagement with civil society since the 1960s. It was an extremely interesting and also in some ways discouraging talk. The decline in church membership and participation has to be seen as part of much larger transformation of society, as Americans become increasingly less involved with each other, their communities, and the social institutions that had previously been vital expressions of our social selves. Putnam says we have been through this before, from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth, and new institutions arose to take the place of those in decline. He predicts this will happen again. Meanwhile, honestly, I find it hard to imagine how sending the pastor to Starbucks will make a dent in the problem. (Although speaking for myself I’d always be happy for an excuse to drop in at my local coffee shop.)

  7. What if Starbucks is one of those “new institutions” that is arising to take the place of the old ones? Then it seems like it would be a great thing to do! 🙂

  8. Widening, that’s very interesting. I’ll take a look at his book. I wonder if we aren’t one of the institutions set to *be* replaced? And yet in the same town where I am working, a non-denominational church built on the profits of a land sale to Wal-Mart some years back seems to be thriving. People with children flock there, I’m told. It can’t just be the parking lot.

  9. Widening Circles says it just right. My crackpot theory is that our society as a whole is disconnecting more and more and that this is something supported and fueled by “those in power”. I firmly believe that the ’60’s were the last decade where being able to organize as a group outside the existing status quo and being able to make profound changes, scared the bejonkas out of “those in power”. And they want that to never happen again. Unfortunately church is one of those places where the most important “revolution” was begun. And now suffers from this fallout.

  10. Actually, Putnam supports the idea that our society as a whole is disconnecting more and more. That’s pretty much what his research is all about. But rather than blaming this on “those in power” he cites TV, suburban sprawl, the increasing ethnic diversity of our society (which tends to make everyone hunker down until they get used to it), and some other factors I’m not rememering just now. And indeed according to the statistics he has amassed, this did all start in the ’60s, though he thinks he can prove that the exact same thing happened a hundred years ago due to similar major social changes.
    The mainline churches are included in this trend for sure, so it isn’t something that’s happening just to your church or your denomination. A few kinds of churches are bucking the trend, though. Putnam had some interesting things to say about his visit to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, including finding significant ethnic diversity in the congregation and evreyone somehow managing to make it feel “commnual.”

  11. Songbird, I would love to talk more about this with you. As we serve in the same area, I wonder if there is a certain New England thing that is happening. You are so right about the resistance to change. And I hear you sister!

  12. Interesting dialog … My experience leads me to believe it’s not urban or rural, and it’s not New England, South, Midwest … it’s all of the above … Moderns think “postmodern” is a generation … they are unaware or haven’t accepted that the culture has changed!
    My last call ended up being only two years because of an experience Like Jan’s friend: “(she thought it would be longer) because who they said they were (in the interview) was not who they really were. They said they wanted to change/grow/do outreach, when they just didn’t. They liked the thought of those things but didn’t really want to do the work involved. And when she believed them and tried to make changes accordingly, it didn’t work. It was too big a paradigm shift.”
    So good to have this blogsphere to support one another in these times!

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