To my faithful “emergent” brothers and sisters
As you may have realized, some denominational leaders are noticing us. Baptist Press recently offered an article arguing that our lives in Christ present a “threat to the Gospel.” We stand accused of accommodating the post-modern culture, abandoning trust in the unique saving work of Jesus, and selling out confessional Christianity. In my context of mission and ministry, these charges are simply untrue. Yet they are frustrating not merely because they are false, but because are born of stereotypes and poor generalizations about “what those emergent Christians believe.”
Why are these leaders so angry? Why are they so afraid? I can’t answer those questions, because those accusations are not made in the context of relationship. Without the mutual openness and respect that would come with a real friendship in the Gospel, any critiques that “emergent” and “traditional” Christians might offer one another are reduced to sound bites.
How then can we respond to our friends and the Powers That Be in American religious life who question our motives and our faithfulness?
I wholeheartedly believe that most of us in these emergent generations are making the choices we are in faithfulness to God’s call to be his new community in Jesus Christ: agents of change and redemption in his world. When our critics do not recognize our faithfulness, the answer is found in living openly. If it is really Jesus to whom we are responding, we needn’t be afraid to talk about that without defensiveness: we must “answer… with gentleness and respect … so that those who speak maliciously against [our] good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Many of us have critiques regarding the way “traditional” or “modern” Christians choose to live together. Many of them are valid and needful. But they will not be heard if we cannot be friends, and if we cannot be seen to assume the faithful intent of those with whom we disagree. If we are to be ideological adversaries, we must at least be adversaries in good faith. If we impugn the motives of our conversation partners, we will end the conversation, and relegate it to the realm of unhelpful, inflammatory, and fearful accusations: faithfulness is predicated, again, on who can most effectively use religious media to pain their enemies as “threats to the Gospel.”
To begin (or continue) fruitful conversation in religious life, we must remain friends. We must share our “redemption stories,” witnesses of how Jesus is transforming lives for the better in each of our ministry contexts. Let’s learn together what values and hopes we share in common with “traditional” church practitioners. If we let Jesus transform our lives, there will be quite a bit of deconstruction (post-modern or otherwise) along the way, as well as a great deal of construction. Truth, after all, is nothing to fear.
I offer a word of caution, however. This desire to maintain relationship with the traditional church and its structures can become idolatrous when the goal becomes approval, and not mutual learning and discernment. For many of us, our desire for the approval of “those reputed to be pillars” (whether seminary or convention presidents, popular writers, megachurch leaders, professors or pastors), can stand in the way of responding to God’s call. I don’t blame anyone for desiring the approval of those religious leaders who possess prestige and accolades from the masses, but that desire is dangerous.
Maintaining loving relationships with people does not require approving all of their values and practices, nor endlessly defending one’s own. Loving relationships are not so defensive, or so insecure. Sometimes we must agree to disagree. We must offer one another the freedom in Christ to do that.
God called Abram to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household for a land Abram had yet to see. He called him to leave behind his symbols of security, and trust God to reveal his faithfulness.
Sometimes we must disappoint important people whose intentions for us are not God’s intentions; we must often leave behind the approval of charismatic leaders and denominational entities. If you can remain in respectful, caring relationships with those religious persons, do. But if they continue to speak abusively and seek to keep you on the defensive regarding your life in Christ, it is better to walk away.
Regardless, keep praying together. Keep studying the scriptures. Keep delving deeply into the Church’s history. Keep doing life together. Keep being the Church.
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