Monthly Archives: June 2010

There’s a new fortune cookie fortune taped to the register at the cafe: “The work will teach you how to do it.” I like that. The learning comes through the process of the work.

It’s been a roller coaster week for church-planting emotions. I’ve been able to spend quality time with several members of Upper Room. And there have been a number of other encouraging ministry moments this week. But in the center of the week was our annual meeting with the commission that approves our grants and oversees our work. It was challenging. . . . Suffice it to say, great things are happening at Upper Room, but we need to grow or adapt in order to become sustainable once we’re weaned off the grants. And that’s intimidating when you aren’t quite sure how to grow or adapt.

Personally, I often feel like I know what needs to happen in ministry, but not how to make it happen. I can picture the desired outcome, but there’s no instruction book to go with the picture on the box. But that’s part of living by faith: trusting that what God has promised will come about, even if the steps in the process are unclear. Or the process itself keeps changing. For those walking by faith, the Spirit teaches us how to do the work, through the process of doing the work. Right?

Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional left me deeply grateful.  I’m thankful for such an apt and (I feel) accurate summary of what the “emerging church” is and is not.  But Deep Church also left me with a longing to go deeper

An Accurate Assessment: Belcher’s right that at the heart of the emerging church is protest. Early on he writes that the “view that something is wrong with the evangelical church’ (p. 10) unifies those of us who’ve taken on the label emerging or emergent.  For the sake of clarity, he identifies seven aspects of evangelicalism which the emerging church is protesting: captivity to enlightenment rationalism, a narrow view of salvation, prioritizing belief over belonging, uncontextualized worship, ineffective preaching, weak ecclesiology, and tribalism.  These seven aspects then shape the rest of the book as Belcher identifies weaknesses both the traditional and emerging perspectives on each issue.

For the most part, I think his assessment is right.   There are a lot of things wrong with evangelicalism today which the emerging church has rightly protested.  But there is also danger in the rootlessness of some of those protests.  Like some of our Protestant ancestors, we in the emerging church have defined ourselves more by what we’re against than what we’re for, and in the process have become overly-reactionary, divisive and bitter.

Longing to go deeper: Belcher’s antidote for this rootless protest is a call for the emerging and traditional camps of evangelicalism to seek deeper grounding in the Great Tradition of the Church. This is the book’s greatest strength.  And it’s exactly where the book stirs up an appetite that has to be satisfied elsewhere.  In medical terms, if the diagnosis and prescription found in Deep Church is correct, we have to look a lot deeper to find the medicine we need.  Earlier in the book, Belcher draws on Thomas Oden’s call for a “new ecumenism,” one that is “above all committed unapologetically to ancient ecumenical teaching” (p. 54).  But the conclusions Belcher comes to in the book don’t yet reflect the depth of what could be learned from ancient and ecumenical sources. His use of Great Tradition in the book is distilled through the lens of the Reformation and then again through contemporary heroes like C.S. Lewis (from whom Belcher gets the term “deep church”).  Of course, it’s not fair to ask him to be an expert on Patristics; his story reflects his story and reveals the laudable ways he’s applied these principles in his own ministry.  But genuine engagement with the Great Tradition of the Church means more than reading the Church Fathers who were favorites of the Reformers.  There’s much to be learned from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal wings of the Church which can contribute to a new ecumenism.  After reading Deep Church we should start out on an unending journey through the riches of the ancient and global Church, exploring the ways the lessons of the ancients are manifest in other traditions today.

Personal Thoughts: Jim weaves his own story throughout the whole book, describing the tension that he’s experienced doing ministry in both traditional evangelical and emerging settings.  Personally, I resonated with many of Jim’s attractions to and hesitations about some of what’s going on under the broad label “emerging.”  Brian McLaren’s books were a Godsend for me at a time when I was disenchanted with the church I saw.  Throughout seminary I read emergent books and worked them into my seminary papers.  I’ve written for and nominally served on the coordinating-group for Presbymergent.  And as good as those things have been, they’ve been unsatisfying because of both their lack of roots and reactionary spirit.  I walked away from 2009 Emergent Theological Conversation grateful for having heard Jürgen Moltmann, but disappointed by the way he was co-opted and exploited to defend against criticisms of Emergent. 

This is why I’ve been so enthusiastic about what’s been happening locally in Pittsburgh with a renewal in studying the Church Fathers.  Studying the Philokalia with my friends Tim and Matt (of ACFI and now House of St. Michael) has been a way for us to connect deeply and meaningfully with the Great Tradition.  And it’s had a direct impact upon my ministry at Upper Room as we’ve learned more about what it means to be both a sacramental and missional community.   That’s where I’m encountering the deep church, and where I hope to keep going deeper.

I have not been blogging much recently for one big reason: Eileen and I bought a house.  For two weeks all our spare energy has gone into packing, moving, and working on the new house.  It’s a wonderful house, and we’re truly blessed to have it.  And in only a few days of living there I’m noticing a number of differences between renting and taking ownership.

This feeling probably wears off for homeowners after a while, but everything in the house comes with a greater feeling of responsibility.  When a doorknob is loose, I know I’m responsible for fixing it.  Weeds in the yard, squeaks in the floor, and spots of peeling paint can’t be as easily overlooked anymore.  There is no other landlord who will fix things that break.  No one else is going to pay for the water-heater to be replaced.  No one else is going to water the plants or cut the grass or fill the bird feeders.   We were always responsible renters, but I know there were things that I’ve overlooked in other places we’ve lived thinking, “That’s not my problem,” or “Someone else will take care of that.”  Not anymore. Eileen and I have ownership, and that means one big thing: responsibility.

And of course I think there are parallels between these feelings and life in the church.   Normally members of newer churches have a higher feeling of ownership over the ministry than in existing churches, but like home-ownership it doesn’t take long for the  joy of responsibility to turn into tiredness and burnout.  Friends who have been homeowners for years sometimes lament to me the amount of time, energy, and money they put into home maintenance.  Sometimes they even said, “Don’t buy a house.”  Responsibility and ownership sound nice, but renting is clearly easier sometimes.  I think church “renters” are a perennial presence in all congregations.  They stay in one place for a short period of time, not putting down the roots that it takes to build deep community.  And they give less time, energy, and money to the maintenance of the community because they’re not rooted there.   But no church community will survive without people taking ownership.  Someone has to claim responsibility for the maintenance, especially with the less glorious and more painstaking tasks of ownership. I love the windows in our new house, but I do not look forward to scraping and repainting every window frame.

So this raises questions for me:  How can churches cultivate attitudes of church-ownership rather than “renting”?  How can we help people find joy in the responsibility of belonging to a church community?  Well, to extend the analogy, why do people by houses?  I think rootedness plays a role.  Eileen and I decided to buy a house because it became apparent that we were becoming rooted in and committed to Pittsburgh for the next several years.  Perhaps people take ownership in a church when they see the benefits of being rooted in one community over the long-haul.  The opportunity to take control was also a factor in our decision to buy a house.  We wanted the freedom to garden as we chose and to have a dog.  But we couldn’t have those freedoms and privileges without increased responsibility.  Likewise, if people want to help shape a church culture, they have to take on the extra work that it takes to do so.   One more reason a lot of real estate is purchased for the sake of investment.  Generally speaking, it’s good stewardship to buy rather than rent.  Owners have something tangible to show for the money they pay toward their housing, while renters give that money away. And, if the conditions are right, in time the value of the property increases and there is a return on the initial investment.  For a church member to invest a church community means taking on more responsibility, but it also means a greater return on what’s given.  Relationships that last over years and years provide more return that short-lived and shallow ones.  Seeing hearts turned toward Christ and signs of his Kingdom coming in a changed neighborhood is the return investment in a new faith community.

Eileen and I don’t know all our neighbors yet, we don’t know what the coming years will bring on our block, and we don’t know what other curve-balls God may throw at us in the meantime.  But we’re committed, so we chose to buy rather than rent.  And I have hope that in the end it will be worth it.  I pray God will grant our church community the same graces of ownership.