dimanche, mai 23, 2010

My Lancaster column on the emergent church

Saturday, May 21, 2010

I'm in the coffeehouse for a while before I realize that Ryan and Erik have gotten there before me.
After all, there's nothing to mark the two community founders as clergy, although between them they have spent many years in ministry.
And that's just the way these two disciples of a new approach to Christian community seem to like it.
Ryan Braught, who founded Veritas, and Erik Ewing, who began the Definition Collective, are joined by Susan Heydt, Ewing's former colleague at a local Methodist church where they worked. She's a candid, sometimes conflicted, supporter of the move towards new models for church.
Right now Veritas meets as a congregation on Sunday mornings at a church in Marietta and in two "missional communities" on weekday evenings in the homes of congregants.
Braught hopes, he says, that eventually the Sunday gathering will be the hub from which other new groups will spread.
Veritas members go out in the community to perform works of service like cleaning trash from the streets or handing out water to local college students.
Ewing's community plant meets on Sunday evenings in a historic building in Manheim.
Church growth in America is often a matter of itinerant Christians moving from one congregation to another rather than new growth fueled by those with no previous Christian exposure.
With this in mind, I ask the three who they are trying to reach.
All three had strong ties to local churches before they decided to try something new. Braught still has an ongoing relationship with his parent denomination — Veritas is affiliated with the Atlantic Northeast District of the Church of the Brethren.
"We are not trying to reach anyone who already has a relationship with Christ" — not a lot of time spent trying to capture those who are already "saved," Heydt says.
Would Braught or Ewing use the word "saved," with its strongly evangelical connotations, to describe what they are doing?
"Saved has become a co-opted word," says Braught, who speaks with a quiet intensity. "I'd redefine it. Eternity is eternity and is important, but we are saved now for works of justice and peace."
"I'm not trying to reach anybody," Ewing chimes in. "I'm trying to (create) a place where people can come search for themselves … . Jew, Greek, male, female, Republican, Democrat, a place where they can come and leave their suppositions and baggage at the door."
Gathering time at Definition Collective begins with a half-hour of conversation among participants, a commitment to catch up "face-to-face and not on Facebook," Ewing says. Recent Sunday topics have included a four-part series on "Fear" and an evening, "The Flow," devoted to ideas brought by members.
While the adults meet at Definition Collective, children who participate in a group called "Seeds" also have an opportunity to experience their own "faith conversation" as they try to discern what God means to them.
Sometimes eight people show up on a Sunday evening, sometimes it's 40, Ewing says.
Veritas, on the other hand, offers a chance for congregants to experience multisensory styles of worship that may be more helpful to them, Heydt says.
"You tell me I can go over here and touch this, pray this, draw this, and give me the ability to do that."
And, when it comes to putting the Scriptures into action, Veritas relies on group decision-making, Braught says.
Most of the people who attend Veritas already have a Christian background, says Braught, but they come with a lot of unhealed wounds from prior experiences with Christian communities.
"This is their last-ditch effort before chucking the whole ball of wax … people say, 'I can finally ask questions without being a troublemaker.'"
Ewing and Braught meet monthly for support and ideas with other missional community leaders in Elizabethtown.
"We all agreed that this whole thing shouldn't be territorial," Ewing says. "We should work together and have a Kingdom view."
But worshipper Heydt, a local teacher with a teenage daughter, still has questions.
"My biggest struggle is that I am still seeking an authentic worship experience meaningful to me and my daughter," she says. "I consider the Definition Collective to be missional and an outreach opportunity — but it doesn't meet my needs for worship. "
Though the future is not yet clear, both Braught and Ewing bring a focused enthusiasm to their work — a confidence that they are where God wants them to be.
And what about the "big questions" currently roiling denominations both liberal and conservative, the ones that split denominations: gay ordination, abortion, the authority of Scripture, women's role in worship?
"If you give people space to experience what real community is like, these questions aren't relevant" Ewing says. Instead, he gets questions that have a faith element but are practical in application, he said.
Braught believes that in a grace-filled community, even the hot potatoes can become opportunities — if participants see that they are truly respected and really heard.
"People who ask those hard questions want to see how you listen, how you care for them and how you are (with them)," Braught says. "No matter what we hold, we've got to hold that we love people first."
Then the pastors and the teacher return to the practical concerns of the world around them, incognito ambassadors for the Gospel in a culture where the Good News is often rejected — and increasingly unknown.

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