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Presbymergent

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.

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When I share our vision statement for the new church with friends who aren’t familiar with the PC(USA), they’re struck by the words “submission and service” to the PC(USA) and the Church universal.  In an otherwise missional-sounding statement, here’s this sudden note of denominationalism, something antithetical to the missional renewal of the Church.  Denominationalism (defined as pledging one’s allegiance to a particular denomination rather than to the whole of the Body of Christ) is dying.  This is good. Our denominations, however, are not dying – they are being reshaped.  Last week I wrote a post on Presbymergent about a new paper the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship put out this month called “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” A number of people have contributed great comments about the paper as well, so please go read them.  Simply put, I think the paper reflects the denomination’s preoccupation with self-preservation and the striving for institutional power and social influence.  

 

How can we get past the bureaucratic mindset of church as a manageable human institution and move towards church as a demonstration of God’s Kingdom (G-3.0200)? I am going into ministry in the PC(USA) because I want to be a part what God’s doing to reshape it into something new.  My dream is to see the PC(USA) be reshaped into something that better reflects the Kingdom: contagious, passionate, relational, just, loving, self-sacrificing, at times subversive, and above-all committed to the lordship of Christ alone.  Greg Boyd wrote in his book Myth of a Christian Nation about God’s Kingdom being one that exercises power under rather than power over.  For the church to exercise power under people or society is to spend itself in service and mission, trusting God for its sustenance, vision, and future. And that may even mean that institutions in their current forms have to die before there can be resurrection.

 

The funny thing is, our Book of Order even reflects this vision. “The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the Gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ” (G-3.0400).  What if we actually believed this?  Would we trust in God more than in our endowments?  Would we make decisions through prayer and discernment rather than politicized debate?

  
When I think of how our new church will hopefully participate in the denomination, I pray that it will do so as a voice that exercises power under rather than power over, as a witness that points to the priority of mission over self-preservation.  And I pray that as other creative new ministries across the country choose to participate in the PC(USA) – rather than to abdicate responsibility to their denomination – that we will be reshaped into a truer demonstration of God’s coming Kingdom.

This weekend some of my fellow seminarians and church friends had the joy of visiting with Bruce Reyes-Chow, one of the candidates for Moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly.  Both on Saturday afternoon, at a casual meet-and-greet time at The Vault, and last night after worship at The Open Door, Bruce was intentional about listening to all of us – wanting to hear our stories and what our dreams are for the future of the denomination.  As someone who favors a grassroots understanding of ministry, he was eager to listen to the church members, seminarians, and friends who visited with him.   A good moderator is a good listener.  Of course we also got to hear Bruce’s take on everything from the renumbering of G-6.0106b in the FOG report to the uniqueness of this year’s assembly.  I’m not going to summarize everything here, but I will say that I wish him the best in his run for Moderator and pray that God will bless and use him for the good of the Church.  I don’t agree with Bruce about everything – for instance, this issue of homosexuality – but there are a few reasons why I believe the denomination would fair well to have him as Moderator of the GA. 

First, he knows that the PC(USA) needs to wake up to the reality of the cultural changes which are currently taking place in North America.  His candidacy has made impressive use of blogs and Facebook to get the word out among younger Presbyterians, and this has changed the way other moderators are approaching the race.  Second, in view of those cultural shifts he believes the denomination needs to learn from more creative and missional forms of ministry.  As the pastor of a church-plant, Bruce is actively working in the creative, growing edge of the church.   For the PC(USA) to experience missional renewal, the voices of people who are working outside of the traditional structures of the denomination need to be heard at all levels of the church.  This, more than anything, is why I like Bruce – the church needs to hear the voices of young creative leaders like himself as it looks further into the 21st century.  I believe Bruce has the potential to bring people and churches from the fringes of the denomination (like Open Door) into conversation and community with the existing power structures.  We need this.   

At the end of our time last night, several of us gathered around Bruce and prayed for him.  As we prayed that the Spirit would fill him, guide him, and use him for God’s glory in the reshaping of the PC(USA).  I pray specifically that the commissioners and advisory delegates will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as they discern which candidate to choose.    As we count down the weeks until GA, I wish Bruce the best and look foward to seeing what happens in San Jose! 

 

Bruce Reyes-Chow for Moderator

This fall is already turning out to be incredibly busy for me, so much that I’m wondering if I need to drop things to have more free time. The problem is, these are all things that I’m passionate about, especially the things that are happening over the next two weekends:

Tomorrow I’ll be heading to Louisville, KY, for a retreat with the Company of New Pastors, a PC(USA) program designed to help seminarians transition into ministry. I’m excited about the trip for two reasons: (1) there are going to be amazing people there from seminaries across the country, and (2) there is built-in “free time” to rest and relax during the weekend.

Next weekend (the 12th and 13th) is also the Presbymergent: Always Reforming conference here at Pittsburgh Seminary. It’s going to be a great event, featuring some wonderful people from the Presbymergent community. Plus, I’m going to be leading a fun “unconference” (see here) seminar on Friday night. Here’s the description:

Presbymergent Poetry Party: This is a chance for Presbymergents with proclivities for producing poetry and prose to share our work and ponder the use of creative literary arts in worship. Bring something for a casual open-mic reading, or just come and chat about how we can more creatively use our words to convey the Word.”

Registration’s still open, just go here!

Last April, in a string of comments on Presbymergent, some other people and I brainstormed the possibility of a special gathering for “Presbymergents” here at Pittsburgh Seminary. Thanks to PSF, Continuing Ed, and a lot of hard work by Brian and BJ that gathering will be . . .

Always Reforming: Emergence in the Presbyterian Church

. . . on October 12th & 13th, 2007, featuring John Franke, Nanette Sawyer, Adam Walker Cleaveland, Brian Wallace, BJ Woodworth, Andrew Purves, Scott Sunquist and a whole host of other amazing pastors, leaders, teachers, and students.

I’m extremely excited about this event – if you’re interested in registering, just follow the big link above!