Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Great Emergent Conversation

Here's a comment I received on a comment I made at this wonderful blog called StupidChurchPeople which is two blogs in one by Steve and Josh. To give you the context, even though I loved these guys blogs, I thought that they had come down a little hard on my good friend Tony Jones, and so I wanted to bring some balance. I really see both sides of this situation where some people think the emerging church is moving too fast towards becoming a movement with organization and money, instead of just an organic conversation.
The request:
Jeff, could you post your comment from the SCP site to your blog? I would love to link to it an comment on it from my blog, as I think it speaks powerfully into our own little conversation amongst our group. I cannot compliment you more on the patience, insight, and seasoned wisdom with which you approached this potentially volatile topic. There are many of us who are readers and commenters on the SCP site who were uncomfortable with how Tony was handled, but it's left me with a desire to know more about Emergent.

Thanks Jeff for a fantastic little piece.



My original comment re-published:

Hey, a dual mega-comment on both of your blogs, and this is to the blogs in general, not this post only:

I spent this morning reading your blogs, and I really love them. I love the detox. I love the courage of going against all the forces that are present in the social/religious gathering of humans in your locale that call themselves evangelicals. It really cannot be said enough how brave you are, and how kind you are for sharing your journey with others.

I have been through as much crap as anybody with church during my many years of involvement in every level of church from youth worker, to elder, to janitor. I've done everything except get a paycheck (even janitorial was volunteer). I spent ten years in a parachurch mission organization and supported myself and even got a ministry degree.

I'm from Southern California, but eventually I moved to NYC to become an artist. I've lived here a decade now, and had the interesting experience of seeing how different east coast culture and Christianity is from west coast.

After years of being an artist, I got involved with a group of artists of faith that met weekly to encourage one another as we pursued our careers in the challenging NYC "secular" artistic community. No one planned it or expected it, but this group started growing and eventually became 300 people every week. Through that experience I ended up deciding to plant a church that would take many of the things we learned and allow us to go deeper than a parachurch meeting. So, now that is my new life, church planting pastor. I never wanted to be a pastor, but that's how things have turned out.

At some point in my/our journey here as artists in the midst of the "secular" NYC arts community and all the kind of new and original thinking we were accidentally creating by being in the "belly of the beast" in a way that was totally mystifying to our evangelical friends back home, I ran into the emergent conversation, and realized that a lot of its ideas were parallel to ours. It seemed like God was speaking forth something that although we were coming from different places, the core was the same.

That all came into my life around the same time I began planning the new church plant, and so it enabled me to think through a lot of different things which really helped me. Here in NYC "the emerging church conversation" was not really on the radar screen yet, and so I had never met another actual human being who was "emergent", or knew about it.

So, one day I was sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reading a book published by emergent (on small groups), and a guy sat next to me. I had been praying because I was going through some very difficult financial struggles, and other struggles with various decisions I had to make regarding the church plant.

When I looked up from praying, the guy next to me who had sat there while I was praying, looked at me and said, "Hi, do you like that book"? It took me aback a bit, because who would know anything about some book on small groups? So, I said, "Yeah, I just started it, but why"? He said, "well, I'm on the board of the organization that published it". I was shocked, I blurted out, "You're with Emergent"?? "Yeah", he said, "I'm Tony Jones".... (read the story here)

Well, we had an awesome conversation for an hour or so, and that has led to a continuing friendship. At the time I didn't actually know his name, but I had heard of one of his books.

So, that's my story of how I became connected to the actual group emergent, and now I gladly have the "friend of emergent" logo thing on my blog.

Here, finally is my actual comment. I think I have an insight as to why you guys and some of your friends are not totally happy with Tony and some of his friends (and I would consider all of you my friends).

In the same way there is some intrinsic thing within people that make some automatically lean towards being liberal politically, and some toward being conservative politically - there is just some thing which makes some people go, "oh, I see humans suffering poverty...let's gather resources to help them through the government", and others go, "oh, I see humans suffering poverty...let's gather resources from all of our business profits, and let's ask the government to get off our backs so that we can flourish naturally and help them and ourselves". Both are trying to do good, but just have an opposite way of going about it.

I think what is happening is, both you and emergent see the "poverty" of the church, and you simply are responding with different instincts on how to help it.

I think you will both equally discover some amazing ways to help it.

However, I would say that you guys are a little more angry and unwilling to be open than "emergent the organization" folks. I can guarantee that everyone at emergent likes what you guys are saying, that you represent an awesome voice of discontent with the state of things that will lead to change. They dream of guys like you existing in enough numbers that will actually cause the church to change. (However, they don't like getting "yelled" at in nasty ways because they are human and have emotions).

But even with that being said, they and I know that your anger is necessary. If people don't get angry, nothing is going to happen.

I hope you don't mind me saying this, but, your anger is to me a very beautiful thing. It is like angry art - if you can get into the head and heart of the artist, it can be deeply transforming. It is a beautiful moment when you share their humanity, and you emotionally connect to their anger, and as a result you change for the better, you see how some of your stupid actions have hurt others and made them angry and in seeing it you reform that part of your heart a little. That's why I am an artist.

To more define the different approaches of you and emergent, here is what I see: A desire to see change organically grow through individuals and resist organizing vs. a desire to gather resources of intellect through writing books and blogs and organizing somewhat which requires finance.

Here's what I would like you to consider regarding the core inner motivations which might separate you.

I think one of the most powerful events which affected the trajectory of American evangelicalism from both inside and outside the church, which hasn't really been spoken about too much lately is this: The rise and fall of the Televangelists.

The developing medium of television bore amazing promise in the early years - kind of how the internet is now. This amazing new medium that could get inside of everyone's home. What if we could preach the gospel over it??? Wow, we could reach right into everyone's home that wouldn't even grace the entrance of a church and tell them about Jesus!!! And so with as much enthusiasm as a thousand bloggers, they went after it. Starting in the late sixties, and blossoming throughout the seventies and getting established in the eighties, they grew and prospered - evangelists through the medium of television.

But it was expensive! And because it wasn't a business model with advertising revenue to run on, they had to use the same power they were using to communicate spiritual messages, to communicate that they needed funding. And it was powerful, and they did raise tons of money.

What all started so wonderfully as a progressive new way to evangelize, eventually led to so much money being generated, that one after another you had these guys fall prey to the temptation of greed for even more money.

What happened was really a watershed experience in both the general American culture and the evangelical church simultaneously. The downfall of some of the big names within a relatively short time produced enormous press coverage, and tremendous embarassment, and confusion, and anger over being duped.

Suddenly you could see right through what this had become, it had become a big money making operation, and it disgusted everybody within and without the church.

I don't think it can be overstated how enormously influential this was to the church and her place in American society. It caused probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions to lose their faith, and it caused probably as many more to abort their potential interest in this Christianity thing. There are still many people scarred from it.

There are still millions of people who equate evangelical Christianity with smooth talking televangelists who are actually charlatans after your money.

I think one of the huge fallout, aftermath things of this, is this attitude and mindset that now to be authentic and real, you have to not be in it for the money.

There are many other aspects of the increasing institutionalism of American Evangelicalism which appeared to be about money and power that have left people today with a desire for something new that is fresh and organic and devoid of any money or power. We equate "authentic" with "no cash involved".

I think this is the classic, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It doesn't have to be "authentic" or "cash". It can be authentic and cash together.

It is not money that the bible spends tons of time talking about, it is our love of money, it is our hearts response to money.

New ways for the church to go forward can have money involved if we learn where we went wrong with money and how to do it right. That doesn't mean that in seventy years our forebears won't evolve into institutionalism and once again abuse money.

We can't help the fact that the cycle of the "fresh new thing" that eventually becomes "institutionalized and corrupt old thing" keeps happening. It seems that is the history of mankind. What matters is that we realize that we just need to keep having the "fresh new thing".

Thank Goodness, that when the great-great-great grandkids who hold the licensing rights to "Stupid Church People", (that "money printing" religious powerhouse of publishing/seminars/votive candle holders), who have totally lost touch with the founders vision and have become money loving slobs, thank goodness that they will finally be made irrelevant by a new fresh wind of real faith in some new movement, by a bunch of losers who were out on the fringes, but who dreamed in God of a new wind of his Kingdom.

Maturity is being able to hold the thing that is the gift of God, and enjoy it without letting it master you.

Fire, it is the gift of God for heating your home and cooking your children's food or it can burn your house down or your neighbors.

Sex, it is the gift of God for procreation and pleasure within marriage, or it can be used for porn and community destroying adultery and teen pregnancy and STD's.

Money, it feeds the poor, feeds your family, builds a church or it can strip a man of his soul in pursuit of it, and be used to control others and to assemble an army to attack your neighbors country.

Beer, it tastes good, creates a pleasant social atmosphere, relaxes a man after a hard day's work or it can grab you turn you into a person who releases all their other responsibilities in order to have it, who leaves reality and its bitter pain to live in a drugged state of denial.

I would like to be someone who has fire, sex, money and beer in my life. I would hate to live without them just because I was afraid they might take control over me, and be denied the precious gift they are to me.

We all know the church is in a bad state. The fact that it is shrinking means that people are losing their faith, and new people are not finding the loveliness of Jesus.

Anyone who really cares must respond to this crisis...we must find some new way to go forward.

I believe that gathering people together requires some organization. When our little organic, no- planning-whatsover group of artists suddenly grew to 300 people in a year and a half - I learned firsthand that you need to organize some things. It serves the people that are coming and are hungry to have some organizing.

Some of that organizing requires money to pay for things. If our heart is right, just as we have a freedom now to drink beer like we didn't used to, and just as we have the freedom now to say some swear words like we didn't used to, so we have the freedom to take some money and use it for good things. We can use it wisely and maturely. We can probably resist it controlling us for a good 40-50 years or so. Then we'll get old, and some younger punks will fall in love with the money and screw everything up. But then some other young punks will vomit out their anger over that and reform things again.

Humans will always gather and as their gathering grows they will begin to organize. It is the way that God knew it would be, and he gave us good teaching to help us do it well.

The church has always had house churches and big churches at the same time. By big church I mean over twenty people where you meet in a building that you have to pay for, rather than a home.

You guys are still detoxing, taking some time away from church to get free from it so you can clear your head and start thinking of new ways to do things. Who knows what new ways you will come up with?

But if you gather with some other people, I guarantee whether someone is paying the mortgage on the house you are gathering in, or whether you decide to band together as a community and share the cost of renting a space, someone had to build the walls and roof, and that real estate has value, and someone pays for it.

So, if you want to be truly organic - with no money involved, make sure you meet outside. And I hope you're in a warm climate, so that you can keep meeting outside year round. It would be a little hard to do that here on the east coast.

Or, you can open up and realize that as the body of Christ you have the ability to use money wisely and to allow everyone's gifting to flow and you can have some money and can organize - just make sure you do it all completely differently than in the past, and totally suiting the culture of your locale, and you will be able to create a place where healthy spiritual community - communion, can prosper and glorify God.

Don't be scared by money and organization. Overcome their power by faith, and use them for good. Try to see how Tony and emergent are a little more along on their journey in that regard, and are able to maturely use money to do the vital work they are doing.

Not everyone reads blogs, some people still read books, and they need money to be published. Some people can't afford a computer, but they can afford a book.

Some people might be trying to do or say or even think some new things, and they are up against some big pressures from they're church culture, and they've tried to have a voice, but it has been ignored, and they are near the breaking point, and they could really use a big gathering with other "emerging" types to be encouraged and inspired, and to build relationships. They don't really have many others nearby them, and so they go to an emergent conference, and it really helps them on so many levels. That conference requires money.

There are 370 people out there with amazing new ideas for the church to move forward, and it would be helpful if someone would step up and try to bring some organization and focus to a structure of some kind that could gather those different ideas and allow them to cross collateralize and synergize and build community and relationships and really end up creating some amazing new stuff that is far more than the separate 370 people all by themselves. That's what emergent is, and it takes some money.

Just like our little arts group took off and became a center of activity, and we had to do some organizing, so emergent started as a little organic thing, and who knew that it would take off and become a center of activity and eventually need some organizing. Maybe you'll be so lucky that whatever you eventually end up doing would take off and eventually need some organizing, and maybe even a little money.

I hope you appreciate some of my thinking. I know I really loved reading your blogs and have a great enthusiasm for what lies ahead of you. I think you are right where you need to be and I know Jesus is walking right alongside you taking you where he wants you to go.

Love, Jeff


jeff said...

Jeff, I'm with Zeke on this one. I listened to Tony's interview on SCP as well as Out of Fellowship, and I came away from both of them with a newfound respect for Tony & Emergent.

I don't think Tony deserves much of the criticism he receives, whether on his blog or others. But the attitude in which he handles it is definitely more Christ-like than those who incessantly critique... (myself included!)

What you've written here adds much-needed balance to this particular conversation. And although I cannot speak for anyone else, I certainly welcome it!!


tony said...

Jeff, once again your wisdom shines through. You have a God-given ability to find a Solomonic point in a contentious argument. Thanks for the time you put into this.