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Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture

Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture

by Spencer Burke

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Samplings of online discussions about God, truth, and church—from theOoze.com Our culture is rapidly changing and people are searching for new models and paradigms to find meaning in their lives. As in all transitional periods, this search takes place in grass-roots conversations where the “new” is taking form. No other place so uniquely captures


Samplings of online discussions about God, truth, and church—from theOoze.com Our culture is rapidly changing and people are searching for new models and paradigms to find meaning in their lives. As in all transitional periods, this search takes place in grass-roots conversations where the “new” is taking form. No other place so uniquely captures this struggle more than the message boards at theOoze.com, the premier melting pot of emerging spiritual conversation. Making Sense of Church is a snapshot of this “community conversation” as it tries to make sense of God in the emerging worldview. It represents a gathering of individuals with different points of view, theologies, life contexts, and feelings. Author Spencer Burke, creator of theOoze.com, provides the framework writing for each chapter and acts as a “guide” to the accompanying e-mail postings that supplement the chapters. Subjects discussed include: • Authentic Community • Experiential Worship • The Internet and God • Art as a Vehicle for Communicating Truth • Spirituality and Sexuality • What Is the Church? • What Is Postmodernism?

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Making Sense of Church

Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture
By Spencer Burke Colleen Pepper


Copyright © 2003 emegentYS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-25499-X

Chapter One

The word "postmodern" first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1949. Postmodern is what's come about after-and often in reaction to-modernism, which dominated Western thought for a majority of the twentieth century. In recent decades, every major sphere of life has evolved to become postmodern-movies, literature, art, architecture, business, politics. Everything, that is, except "The Church."

In many ways, the church is the last bastion of modernism in our culture. It's not that the church hasn't changed over the years, but the changes have been cosmetic. We've unplugged organs, padded pews, removed shag carpet, and added video projectors. Meanwhile, everything else in our culture has undergone a complete metamorphosis. The changes are so radical that some parts of our culture are barely recognizable to modern eyes.

The world has changed

Been to a movie lately? Forget linear, moralistic plots. Instead, films like Memento and Being John Malkovich and newer releases continue to push the limits of visual storytelling. Bizarre, brain-twisting movies, these films demand their viewers to create meaning for themselves. Locations and time frames are deliberately ambiguous. Characters are complex contradictions-a fascinating mix of good, evil, and things in between.

The same can be said of postmodern literature. In the past fifty years, a new character has emerged: the antihero. No longer can we assume that the good guy will win in the end. Such expectations seem nostalgic, if not painfully naïve. In our experience, the world just doesn't work like that.

What about business? We've come to accept that profits, not people, are the ultimate priority. Corporate downsizing has become an everyday occurrence. Chances of working for the same company for forty years and someday picking up a gold watch for your trouble are slim. Can you imagine 1950s TV dad Ward Cleaver ever losing his job? I didn't think so. In today's world, though, nothing is certain. Dot coms are here today and gone tomorrow. Hostile takeovers are a way of life, and strategic mergers an apparent necessity. The landscape continuously shifts, and only those who adapt quickly seem to survive.

Our politics have shifted, too. Criticize big government in the 1950s and a sweaty senator from Wisconsin might interrogate you on national television and brand you a traitor. In the 1960s, however, the rules began to change. Sit-ins and protests paved the way for a greater degree of free speech. Today, we're able to protest to our hearts' content. Why? Because we've come to see just how fallible our leaders are. History has shown us that U.S. presidents, in spite of their power and prestige, still manage to lie and lust like everyone else. We no longer have illusions about these things. As a country, we've come to distrust authority, recognizing instead that our nation is indeed capable of getting involved in unjust wars, and that we, too, have the potential to oppress people in other countries for our own economic gain. The divine right of kings-or authority figures, in general-is dead. We've seen too much.

The reality is, postmodernism is not a fad. It's not a hot new trend we can ride out and ignore. Whether or not you realize it, you live in a postmodern world-and you have been living in it for quite some time! It's like Madge, the Palmolive lady, used to say: "You're soaking in it." There's no point in pretending that you're not-or wishing that things would go back to the way they were thirty years ago. They can't; you can't. No fountain of youth exists.

The challenge, of course, is determining what all of this means for the church and knowing how to move forward. What does it mean to be postmodern and Christian? If such a combination is possible, then what does a "postmodern church" look like? And just how far are we willing to go in unwrapping the evangelical package?

Rising to the challenge

Oddly enough, Jesus found himself at the center of a similar cultural debate. Remember the discussion about whether God's people should pay taxes to Caesar? Forever trying to trip up Jesus, the religious leaders of the day sent out men to challenge him on his obedience to the law.

"Teacher," they said, "we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You sincerely teach the ways of God. Now tell us-is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?" (Luke 20:21-22 NLT). What does Jesus do? He asks them to show him a coin. "Whose picture and title are stamped on it?" Upon hearing their answer, "Caesar's," he simply replies, "Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God."

It's crazy, really. Considering that Jesus could make coins appear anywhere he wanted, including inside a fish's mouth (Matthew 17:24-27), did he really need to give an answer to this question? Since it's all God's, why not tell these people off, or just ignore them and move on?

Perhaps Jesus was making a point about respecting the culture in which we live. In a wonderful, sarcastic and playful way, Jesus affirmed his deity while acknowledging the reality of life on planet Earth. True, this world is not our home, so we don't necessarily have to play by its rules, but we may choose to do so for the cause of Jesus Christ. Yet in doing so, we may sometimes find ourselves at odds with other Christians.

I find it interesting that Jesus instructed the people to figure out what was Caesar's. In most of life, that's not as easy as it sounds. The more I think about Jesus' statement, the more convinced I become that taking a hard look at our lives is actually biblical. As I see it, postmodernism provides an unprecedented opportunity for self-examination. By its very nature, postmodernism offers us a chance to think long and hard about why we do the things we do. It forces us to wrestle with our beliefs and our traditions, our programs and our theology, all in an effort to uncover those aspects of our faith that are really and truly God's-and, by extension, those that are not.

Still, the concept of deconstruction is a scary one. We get nervous at the thought of deconstructing anything-primarily because we're afraid if we pull our religion apart, we may end up with nothing in the end. We picture home repair projects gone wrong-with heaven or hell hanging in the balance. Never mind an angry spouse. What if we aren't able to fit the pieces back together in any kind of coherent whole? What then?

I guess that's why I prefer to use the words "unwrap" or "unpackage." As Christians responding to the challenge of postmodernism, we're not attacking our faith, we're simply unpackaging it. We're daring to pull off the shells of sentiment and tradition in confidence of finding a pearl of great price inside. We've lived long enough to suspect that maybe, just maybe, some of what appears to have Jesus' face on it actually may be Caesar's. Whereas postmodern secularists may deconstruct everything down to its essence, postmodern Christians ultimately will retain at least one absolute, Jesus Christ.

Playing by new rules

I think it's important to understand, too, that postmodernism isn't just about critiquing modernism. Whether or not we realize it, some of what we've called "doctrines" or "truths" over the years are, in fact, cultural interpretations. In many ways, many of the church's messages today are similar but far from identical to those preached by Martin Luther. By the same token, the messages preached by Luther were similar but certainly not identical to those upheld by Constantine.

Our understanding of Christianity has morphed and changed down through the centuries, in large part dependent on the church's cultural contexts. Political and economic factors always have shaped our understanding. As a result, I believe we need to risk exposing some of our most cherished beliefs to the light, trusting that no matter whose face is revealed on the coin, we'll be able to continue the journey.

While examining our beliefs and practices is a good start, any serious evaluation of our faith also must challenge our subconscious beliefs. Business author Peter Senge writes of mental models-the "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action." In his book The Fifth Discipline, Senge points out how powerful these images can be. "The problem with mental models arises," he says, "when the models are tacit-when they exist below the level of awareness."

Many new insights fail to get put into practice in business-or in the church-because they conflict with these deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.

While looking at our theology and systems is good, our churches won't ultimately change if we don't also examine our mental models-the metaphors that guide us in our everyday life. Our mental models often prove more powerful than anything else floating around in our heads. Think about it. How many churches have warm, fuzzy mission statements full of words like compassionate, caring, and committed-yet call their people to take up arms against a godless, secular culture?

Because of this fact, Leonard Sweet actually advocates adopting "image statements"-pictures that stimulate us to action and capture the essence of who we are and who we want to become. Rather than writing convoluted mission and vision statements, which often contradict our tacit "mental models," he suggests that churches begin to rally around a single image.

Sweet's own personal image statement, for instance, is a child on a swing. "As a historian of Christianity, I want the church to lean back-not just back to the '50s, but all the way back through 2000 years of history," Sweet writes. "All the way back until we're, in the words of that Sunday school song, 'Leaning, Leaning, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.' But at the same time, and I do mean simultaneously, we must use that energy and power that comes from 'learning to lean' to kick forward into the future and Carpe Manana."

Exploring new ideas

Sweet's swing is a powerful image for what's beginning to happen in churches all over North America, and certainly what's happening every day on TheOoze.com. Each week, thousands of people visit the Website hoping to come to a deeper understanding of what postmodernism means for them and their particular spiritual communities. Many log onto TheOoze's message boards-a virtual water cooler-to share thoughts, observations, and questions with one another.

This book captures some of that discussion. It gives you a chance to listen in on the dialogue as it happens-to eavesdrop, in a sense, as people wrestle and unpack everything from styles of worship to the finer points of evangelical theology. Of course, we can't include every message or every thread. So at times you may hear only bits and pieces of a conversation. Nevertheless, I believe these snippets can help prompt your thinking and broaden your perspective. They're critical pieces in a terribly complex puzzle.

I also have incorporated many of my own thoughts throughout the text. In fact, each chapter begins with a narrative from my own life, as well as a discussion about mental models-the images that have guided the church to this point, and the images that I believe may guide us in the future. Although each chapter builds on previous chapters, they also stand alone, so don't feel like you have to read this book in any particular order. Scan the table of contents again and then jump in at the point that most interests you.

Having said that, I do hope you'll take the time to read the entire book and consider each of the chapters with an open mind. Be forewarned. This book is not an easy read. You may not agree with everything that is said. Some posts may offend you slightly; others may strike you as downright heretical. But persevere!

One of my goals in writing this book is to create opportunities for people in the established church to connect with those who are "emerging"-to create a common vocabulary between us so that we can move forward together as one body, the body of Jesus Christ.

I can't stress that last point enough. As I travel around from conference to conference, and from church to church, I'm discouraged by the amount of "us and them" rhetoric that I hear. I don't know that we do ourselves any favors by getting into one more fight over biblical inerrancy or over five-point Calvinism. Yet, for years, that's exactly what our conversations have continued to revolve around. We've doggedly kept trying to define and redefine ourselves by what we do and do not believe.

The language of metaphor offers us a much-needed alternative.

Let me say it again: This book is not an argument about theology. It's not even a philosophical discussion. It's simply a conversation. It's a conversation about church-The Church.

Listen in-and then let me know what you think. You can post your opinions, rants, or raves, and experience the expanding conversation by logging on to MakingSenseofChurch.com.


Excerpted from Making Sense of Church by Spencer Burke Colleen Pepper Copyright © 2003 by emegentYS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

During the last 22 years of ministry, Spencer Burke has explored his passion for arts, technology, and the church. Spencer now serves at both THEOOZE and at his church, ROCKharbor, in Costa Mesa, California. As creator and sustainer of THEOOZE, Spencer has the opportunity to merge all of his passions together into one organization as he strives to understand what being a real and authentic follower of Jesus means in our world. ROCKharbor gives him the privilege to serve on the elder board, the speaking team, and---as strategic planner---facilitator and counselor to the staff.
Colleen Pepper spent three years as a staff writer for a large parachurch organization before launching her own communication firm, Pepper Creative, in 2001. She and her husband, Jeremy, live in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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