mardi, juillet 11, 2006

Listening critically to the emergents

I drove by a lot of congregations in my quest to find the right one for my family. I was looking for some very specific qualities in a church: a contemporary service, an orthodox but non-ideological bent (I am fed up with church dogfights), some form of eucharistic observance, and a pastor who isn't power hungry. I don't think I'm alone in having, to put it crassly, a shopping list.. As idiosyncratic as is my story, in some ways it exemplifies the plight of modern mainline denominations. After all, it is people like me, and people a lot younger, that American churches are trying to reach. Folks like me who have been burned by church politics, or men and women (and teens) who have never been involved in church at all, because it's never had much to say to them. They want a safe place to ask questions. They want a service that is both meaningful and relevant. They would like to be able to trust the leaders of these congreations. And they want to be part of a group that makes a real difference in the world, and doesn't just talk about doing it. It may be that the new generation of Protestant leaders gets this. If they do, it's in part because of the work of people like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell. McClaren, a pastor of a church outside Washington, DC and author of books like "The Church on the Other Side" (should be required reading for church planters) is one of the leaders of the so-called "emergent church" movement. Bell, who is much younger, is the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church outside of Grand Rapids. This summer he, his wife and two sons are touring the country with his own unique way of getting an old message across to new generations. Here's part of the recent story on Bell in the NYT: "At the Logan Square Auditorium here one recent night, Rob Bell arrived in a rock band tour bus and strode past posters for Cheap Sex, a punk band performing at the hall later this summer. Following a T-shirted bouncer through the sold-out crowd of about 450, Mr. Bell hopped onto the stage.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and earth," he began, without introduction. "Now, it's a very old book."
This, Mr. Bell believes, is what church can look like. For the hall's bartenders, it was the start of a slow night.
Mr. Bell, 35, is the pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, an independent evangelical congregation in Grandville, Mich., outside Grand Rapids. The church has a weekly attendance of 10,000 and meets in a former mall.
His performance here was the first in a monthlong tour of 21 cities — joined by one roadie, a whiteboard and his wife and two sons — taking him to venues usually presenting rock bands. His 100-minute talk, billed as "Everything Is Spiritual," features no music or film clips, no sound other than his voice and the squeak of his marker, filling the board with Hebrew characters, diagrams, biblical interpretation and numbers.
He wore black pants and shirt, and spoke with the awed enthusiasm of someone describing a U2 concert, moving from a gee-whiz discussion of physics to questions of how God might move in other dimensions, like those discovered by mathematical string theorists.
"When you get to the subatomic level, everything we know about the basic makeup of the universe falls apart," he told the audience. "They use phrases like 'we don't know.' So high-end quantum physicists are starting to sound like ancient Jewish poets."
For Mr. Bell, who in past summers has spoken at giant Christian music festivals, the tour is an opportunity to talk at length to an audience that may not already be in the evangelical tent, about ideas too discursive for sermons.
"I just thought, What are the places my brother and I like to go to?" he explained. "And it's nightclubs and places where bands play. That's where people go to hear ideas in our culture."
The Chicago audience had come from throughout the Midwest to see a figure many knew from the new media of evangelical outreach. Though Mr. Bell does not preach on Christian television and radio, his innovative series of short films called Nooma (a phonetic spelling of the Greek "pneuma," or "spirit") has sold more than 500,000 DVD's in four years, and podcasts of his sermons are downloaded by 30,000 to 56,000 people a week. His book, "Velvet Elvis," which combines memoir with an exploration of the Jewish traditions in the New Testament, has sold 116,000 copies in hardcover since last July.
"Rob Bell is a central figure for his generation and for the way that evangelicals are likely to do church in the next 20 years," said Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today magazine. "He occupies a centrist place that is very appealing, committed to the basic evangelical doctrines but incredibly creative in his reinterpretive style." Even those of us who love liturgy, mysticism and tradition need to be paying attention to the Rob Bells and Brian McLarens. They've pilfered some of the best of the Catholic tradition (presence and mystery and communion) and spiced it up with hip cultural vocabulary , while rooting it in a very traditional understanding of the Good News. I don't know if high end physicists are sounding like Jewish poets. But I do believe that unless find creative ways to honor the hunger of new generations, we in the mainline churches will soon be guarding museums instead of the faith.

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