I may be getting in over my head here, since I’ll turn 50 in October and understand that one’s generation and age does have a lot to do with one’s comprehension of things. But I couldn’t resist putting some things down on cyberpaper after reading the referenced article in Baptist Press.
Being a middle aged suburbanite, with a ministry background, a degree from a theological seminary and ministry experience in extremely typical, traditional church settings, I’ve observed the stagnation in those kinds of settings that has settled in and basically brought evangelism and missions to a complete standstill. When I was in seminary, back in 1987, in an adult education class, the professor pointed out then that the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches were exhibiting the same signs of decline that the other mainline denominations were also experiencing, but that our church independence and autonomy, which extended to church membership and record keeping, were making it more difficult for Southern Baptists to see it. Deep change would need to happen, not only in the way churches approached evangelism, but also in the way they worshipped, did discipleship, fellowshipped and did ministry. In some places, the change is happening, and with it there is criticism related to the doctrinal and philosophical foundations of those who are it’s most passionate advocates.
I’m currently reading Organic Church by Neil Cole. There are some things he writes which makes me wonder if the “change” that is being advocated by what we consider to be emerging, “cutting edge” kinds of churches is really just an abandonment of tradition and habit that has come about from the historic development of the Christian church in America and a return to a New Testament description of the body of Christ.
“When I picture our situation in this light, I begin to see church as a refuge or shelter. I see her as a fortress where we are defending the saints from the vicious wolfpack surrounding us and wanting to devour each of us. But this description of the church does not fit the one given by Jesus in this verse, Matt. 16:18. “(Cole, p.10)
As much as it was influenced by European culture, which captured the church and turned it into a state institution, American culture has captured the church and turned it into yet another kind of religious institution. Cole says it has become complicated and conventional, and as a result, is breaking down and is not productive because it is not easily reproduced. The result has been that the function of the church has been taken out of the hands of the common Christian, and is dependent on talented professionals. The result is a membership that is conditioned to be passive, who “come and act more like spectators than empowered agents of God’s Kingdom.” (Cole, P. 27)
The evidence would certainly suggest that the way we have been doing church for at least the past two or three generations fits that description. It is also clearly not working.
Enter “The Journey,” representing a much different, and apparently quite successful church, using unconventional methods to reach people. Since 2002, a mere five years, it has grown from 20 to 2000 people. That’s all the more remarkable when you consider that the vast majority of those people have come from unchurched, non-Christian backgrounds. According to Cole, it’s the opposite of the “fortress” approach. Here you have troops in the field confronting the enemy on his own turf.
So why the criticism, especially from the traditional, conventional segment of the church that is struggling to simply survive? Is it really over a more “liberal” view of Christian liberty, related to drinking alcohol? That’s subterfuge. The “fortress” mentality has identified what it perceives to be a threat outside the walls. It needs to develop a weapon to lob over the fortress walls, one that appeals to the traditional, spectator mindset that is found inside the fortress. Drinking alcohol is a great one among Southern Baptists. I’ve served on staff of a church where my wife and I had to be careful where we chose to eat in the small Missouri town where we lived, because there were people in the church who held to the strong conviction that it was a sin to eat in a restaurant that served alcohol, because by doing so you were “supporting”, with your money, its sale and distribution. So it makes a great weapon to fire from the cannon at the gnats outside the fortress wall.
The real reason is that leaders who have invested quite a bit in being put in their leadership positions in denominational life, and “professional clergy,” who have spent a small fortune on seminary and invested a lot of time and energy into doing their job well are threatened by this kind of change. It’s not that having a glass of wine or a frosty mug of beer over a theological discussion is sinful. According to the Bible, drunkeness is, but I don’t see that people are going to the “Theology at the Bottleworks” are there to get drunk, or are getting drunk while they are there. But it is an environment where professional ministry skills, or holding a prominent denominational post, would matter little. For those to whom those things are vitally important, it is extremely threatening.
As a professionally trained minister with a seminary degree, a lifetime of job experience in ministry related positions, and a background that is overwhelmingly familiar with the conventional, traditional church, I most definitely understand. But I don’t think that justifies the criticism and condemnation.
It’s the way I often feel on the porch of the 11th Street Cafe, where my seminary training, ordination and ministry experience are very much out of place.