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Where Are We Now?
PHYLLIS TICKLE (in person)
When you take the spiritual temperature of the United States, what kind of readings are you getting?
Phyllis Tickle: I don't think you can do that. I'm a great admirer of the Barna Group. There's great integrity and candor in their work. They're starting to make comments like "I'm not sure you can quantify some of this," or "You can't really tell the number of house churches." I think also that there's in Middle America a sort of moving toward the covert in mainstream Christianity. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, talks about how genuine or authentic Christianity may be having to hunker down under the landscape and hide until things start to cool off and then burst out like Solidarity did in Poland. I find many, many devout and previously vocal leaders in their fifties who are just not inclined to go forth and talk about their faith, though they witness quietly. They don't want to become fodder for a candidate's spiel.
How do you define terms like "unchurched" and "believer"?
Phyllis Tickle: I have a few kids of my own who are "unchurched." That is, church per se is not where they are or where they exercise their faith. I also have some friends who tell me that church is the last place where they find God. When you use the term "believer," you must also ask, "Well, a believer in what?" At best, believer is a tired and old word. I wish we had another, better one we could use.
How do you respond to the conventional wisdom that the mainline churches are dying?
Phyllis Tickle: They are and they aren't. As Bishop Mark Dwyer has noted, about every five hundred years, the church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale. During the last Reformation five hundred years ago, Protestantism took over hegemony. But Roman Catholicism did not die. It just had to drop back and reconfigure. Each time a rummage sale has happened, whatever was in place simply gets cracked into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and reconfigures. I think Diana Butler Bass is absolutely right-on when she says that progressive Christianity is that part of the established institutions presently in place that's going to remain in the center or circle around the emerging church.
In the mainline, Protestantism is losing some of its denominational lines. The Anglicans and the Lutherans are clearly in concord, for they are already swapping pulpits and acknowledging the authenticity of each other's ordination process. In all probability, the Methodists will soon be engaged in some of this. While we're post denominational, we're not post-Protestant.
When I'm talking to Episcopal audiences, I like to say, "If we're in the business of trying to save the Episcopal Church in the United States, shame on us. Judgment Day, we should be found wanting." We're in the business of serving the kingdom of God.
Funding, housing, and enabling an emergent church can lead people into a spiritual relationship and eventually to conversion. Some Anglican and Lutheran, and especially Presbyterian, congregations are quietly funding emergent forms of themselves as church plants. Presbyterians have been the most informed, wisest, and most generous in their support of the smaller congregations that are inclined toward emergent sensibilities. They see to it that such gatherings have the support they need to get started. Then, once they're off and running, the sponsoring congregation lets them loose and then goes on to support another church plant.
What's your take on this recent "emerging church" dialogue that's happening in the United States?
Phyllis Tickle: Clearly there's a new sensibility. Nobody made emergent. In fact, if you listen to Brian McLaren, about the last thing he wants to be credited with is inventing emergent. He didn't. This is not crypto evangelicalism we are looking at, but the sensibilities that have formed it clearly, I think, can be dated back to the Committee on Biblical Fundamentalism and the years from 1910 to 1915, or even farther back to the last decades of the nineteenth century when those first "fundamentalists" were meeting in Niagara Falls. There was strong recognition on their part that something was afoot that they were going to oppose with all the energy and force they could muster. At about the same time, we get that importation of what the Pew Foundation is now calling the renewalists—the Pentecostals and charismatics—whose spiritual and religious authority was experiential. As a result of these and several other factors, we had an aggressive evangelicalism in the midcentury and then, over the last thirty years, its politicalization.
Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has. There's going to be—is, in fact—a whole upheaval, and then the landscape is going to settle back down again as it always does. We have to remember that it's not as if Protestantism came forth in one perfect or cohesive package out of Luther. Almost from the beginning, it had variants like the Confessing and Reformed movements that followed along quickly.
There is no question that part of this emergent swirl consists of those evangelicals who are looking for liturgy and a connectedness to church history, but who are not finding those things in their denominational churches of origin. A lot of the honest-to-God emerging churches are using the BCP. They are also more open perhaps to charismatic experiences than some of their forbearers were, and they are deeply involved in incarnational theology. None of those things has typically been the evangelical pattern. I'm very conscious, as well, of groups like Shared Table and Common Purse, who are returning to fixed-hour prayer, because I see the sales figures and receive the letters generated by The Divine Hours, which is only one among many manuals currently available for observing the hours.
Where does doctrine fit into the growth of emergent church?
Phyllis Tickle: I break into an intellectual and spiritual rash over doctrine. Once, I was asked in a public forum about what I saw as the biggest impediment to spreading the gospel and, without stopping to think, I blurted out, "Doctrine." Of course I don't mean we should throw out all doctrine, but we also have to recognize its divisive qualities. Jesus did not say, "Thou shalt not believe thus so and thou shalt believe these particulars." Never! We need to find a common code of conceptualization, or we're in trouble. McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy is an attempt to lay out something like that.
But it is the nature of religion to institutionalize itself, and we're not going to stop that process this time any more than we ever have in the past. There are three levels of church. There is the church universal and the church intimate. And in between them is the church institutional. And it's the business of the church institutional to connect the intimate and the universal. So we can't have an emergent movement that doesn't become at some point the emergent church institutional.
What are some of the red flags you would like to raise as emerging church finds its footing in the United States?
Phyllis Tickle: One of the things emergent has to do, and do soon, is provide some kind of seminary education, instead of simply having people lay hands on someone and say, "You're now a pastor," or having someone set up a blog with a green leaf logo and decide to regard themselves a pastor.
Another question has to do with accountability. Some of the gatherings have pastors who may or may not be a tentmaker, that is, who may be making their living elsewhere. If people only have accountability within their own group of thirty or so folk, there's the potential for going off into idiosyncratic theology and/or into a cult of personality.
Also, there obviously are all kinds of practical concerns. Where are the health benefits, for example, that allow younger men and women with small children to accept vocation? Where are the retirement programs, which is a particularly pertinent question as emergents themselves begin to mature and age?
DIANA BUTLER BASS (phone interview)
Talk about the liberal/conservative divide that you see existing in American Christianity.
Diana Butler Bass: There is a real temptation on either side of that kind of binary worldview to think that the other people aren't really Christian. So, fundamentalists/evangelicals just completely dismiss the idea of there being anything such as a liberal Christian. On the other side, I think that liberal Protestants in America have (also) been guilty of characterizing evangelical Protestants. They are less likely to say that they aren't Christian, but what they will typically say is that they are not very smart Christians, that there is a kind of intellectual dishonesty with fundamentalist evangelicals, and that if only they read the Bible the right way, then they would obviously agree with liberal Christians. You can be a really serious Christian and break through all kinds of boundaries and not have to really fit with any particular label. I think a lot of people find that really refreshing. That's where I've actually gotten the most response.
What can turn a dying mainline church into a vital congregation?
Diana Butler Bass: I think it has something to do with crisis. Ninety percent of the congregations I studied were—ten or twenty years ago—on the verge of closing. They had declined so badly that there were few people left. Some of them had financial crises or crises of leadership. The vestry notes from Trinity in Santa Barbara stated that they were so divided that there had been fistfights in their board meetings! Elsewhere—sadly—a lot of clergy had misconduct cases, and (in) one of them, even lightening struck the building and burned it to the ground. So there were all kinds of crises. But I think what that means is that that's kind of the same situation in our own spiritual life. There are no atheists in foxholes and for the mainline—basically—the entire tradition has been living in a foxhole for thirty years. Some of them have realized, "Hey look, we've got to get serious here or we're going to die in this hole." Once that sense of the urgency regarding the need to change really hits in a congregation's heart, then I think that's the pathway they've opened for the Holy Spirit to be able to move in and really make a change.
Elaborate on the relationship between the clergy and the laity in these churches.
Diana Butler Bass: There is a much greater sense of shared ministry, and participation in ministry, than was ever present in the mainline churches of my youth—where we sort of still had a "father knows best" kind of church. We were the people in the pews and that was the pastor. Now, that's very much broken down, and many of these congregations have developed new patterns of what they call either "shared ministry" or "mutual ministry," or they actually resist the term "lay ministry," which is interesting. They want to call it something else because they see "lay" meaning "a nonexpert."
Have any aspects of American culture helped—or hindered—the development of the congregations in these studies?
Diana Butler Bass: If you go out and survey the sociological literature, there is sort of a dominant theme that emerges—the shift away from communal and traditional authority, be they pastors, politicians, university professors, or school teachers. This is changing to locating authority for all kinds of decisions in the life of the individual. If you had a religious or moral question in the 1950s, you could ask the schoolteacher, the pastor, the rabbi, the mayor of the town, the person who was the head of the Rotary Club or your parents, and you would get from all those different roles probably a very similar answer. There was no sort of conflict between those groups. So that was a univocal culture that spoke with one voice. Now when you shift over into a culture of individual autonomy, you do not have that. You have a multi-vocal culture, and you have all these different sources of authority making competing claims of truth. So, what has to happen then is that the individual has to choose which one of these things that they're going to believe in and practice in their own life to find meaning and sense of the universe in order to live a life that's worthwhile.
These are part of global changes, global shifts. Nobody is responsible for it at one level, and it seems to be just sort of unstoppable. It's just the way that it is. When you get to that point, when you say, "Okay, these changes have happened," you then have to decide what your response to them is going to be. You can say that they're evil, you can ignore them, or you can say, "This is just a culture like any other culture in which God's people have lived, and our job now is to be faithful in this changing circumstance." Once a church community gets to that point, then it opens the possibility for them to do some really serious imaginative work in reworking Christian tradition and to change context—which is what Christians have been doing since before the time of Constantine. It's really exciting work at many levels because it's sort of the deepest kind of connective work to the heart of the tradition—that tradition and culture always change. The vocation of God's people: to figure out how the gospel makes sense in each one of these successive ways that we've lived in for the past two thousand years.
It's getting harder and harder to judge what a church is like by looking at the building.
Diana Butler Bass: That's really an astonishing thing. Some of our churches look pretty traditional on the outside, but as soon as you get in, and you're there for ten minutes, you realize something completely different is going on. One of the churches in my study is a congregation in New Haven, Connecticut. You couldn't get people who were more of a stereotype of the New England Yale liberals than the people in this congregation. But they've adopted this practice of testimony. The people get up and talk about how much God has changed their lives. The pastor said that she's actually sat in front sometimes and seen newcomers just look on in shock as these privileged New Englanders get up in the pulpit. They start weeping about the way Jesus has changed them, and the newcomers actually head for the doors because they're looking for some sort of really staid, traditional New England church. As soon as you're inside the door, and you start seeing these practices displayed, there is a kind of effusive spirituality and a warmth that's very different.
God's Politics: Not Red, Not Blue ... Purple Churches
From the God's Politics blog (http://www.dianabutlerbass.com/blog/not-red- not-blue...purple-churches.html), November 2, 2006
Diana Butler Bass: For the last three years, I directed a grassroots research project on vital mainline Protestant congregations that involved "on the ground"—or perhaps "in the pews"—surveys, interviews, and field observations. In the fall of 2004, immediately before the last presidential election, I was at Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, amid Ohio's fractious political environment, one woman remarked, "We're not really red, and we're not really blue. We're sort of purple."
Her comments rang true. Some of the congregations along my way leaned toward being blue-purples, others, red-purples. None matched any media depiction of Christian politics; none was a pure form of any political party. Mainline Protestants are somewhat politically unpredictable and do not form a unified voting block. In the 2004 elections, my team estimated that slightly more than half of the study participants voted for John Kerry, while slightly less than half voted for George Bush. Purple churches.
A liberal friend recently quizzed me on the political commitments of mainline Protestants, and I told him about purple churches. He guffawed, "Well, that's where the problem lies. Purple won't get us anywhere." He wanted BLUE churches, a mainline countermovement to the Religious Right's RED congregations. Purple, in his view, appears wishy-washy.
I do not share his perspective. Purple is more than a blend of red and blue, a right-left political hybrid with no color of its own. Purple is an ancient Christian symbol. Early Christians borrowed purple, the color of Roman imperial power, and inverted its political symbolism to stand for their God and God's reign. Christian purple—the color of repentance and humility—represents the kingdom birthed in the martyred church, unified around a crucified savior, and formed by the spiritual authority of being baptized in a community of forgiveness. By choosing purple to represent this vision, they purposefully picked a political color to make the point that their politics would subvert those of the empire.
For Christians, purple is more than a blending of political extremes, a mushy middle. Purple is about power that comes through loving service, laying down one's life for others, and following Jesus' path.
No wonder mainline Protestants are politically unpredictable. Given the issues and candidates in any particular campaign, following Jesus may take different forms at different times, involving a host of policy solutions, and balancing elements of each political party in a "lesser of two evils" voting strategy. For purple people know that God's reign judges politics, that voting is an act of Christian discernment, and that theology should critique policy. No earthly political party speaks spiritual truth.
Even though I am, like my friend, a Democrat, I hope for more purple churches—not just pure blue ones. I do not want to be part of a political movement that is the mirror opposite of the Religious Right; I want my politics to follow in the way of Jesus. So, I was glad to find that the mainline congregations in my study were not a slam-dunk for any political party. That makes them a stronger witness for grace, not a weaker one. And I was equally cheered to see a recent Newsweek poll (Fall 2006) reporting that the "white evangelical" vote for next week's election was running 60 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat, and 9 percent undecided. That is, of course, significantly down in the Republican column from the last election (when nearly 80 percent of "white evangelicals" voted for George Bush). Christians should not be a voting block. Christians should be disciples of Jesus.
Excerpted from RISING FROM THE ASHES by BECKY GARRISON. Copyright © 2007 by Becky Garrison. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. Where Are We Now?....................
2. The Gospel of the Kingdom....................
3. Hospitality to the Stranger....................
4. Forming Christian Community....................
5. Leading as the Body of Christ....................
6. Lift Up Our Voices....................
7. Transforming Space....................
8. Melding Ancient Spiritual Practices with the Modern Culture......
9. Do Unto Others....................
10. Moving Forward....................
Posted March 12, 2014
Posted March 16, 2014