The joys and pains of living in no man’s land

I feel it again today. Some days I’m busy enough or tired enough or happy enough not to feel it. Today I feel it. Today I feel, once again, like a man living between worlds – worlds that look at one another and see aliens and enemies, heretics and lunatics…worlds that are drastically different and far less different than either want to imagine. I feel like a translator at a table with people speaking different languages – each so loudly and rapidly that they don’t even hear one another, much less give me time to translate. Sure, no one is asking me to translate. Frankly, I don’t know how much of the time. Oh, and sometimes I’m one of the people yelling across the table.

Confused yet? Me too. Let me (try to) explain.

This metaphor – the one about different worlds and languages – is about God, people, church, truth, and communication. Most would say a good writer doesn’t unveil the opening metaphor so clumsily or immediately, but suspense is not my goal. In fact, I’ll give away the ending right now: The fragmentation of the church and the divisive nature of her public discourse make me sad. And tired. And angry. And resigned. And confused. And determined.

One could obviously write volumes on disunity in the church, and some have. I’ll try to keep my contribution to a few paragraphs (for now). In fact, I’d simply like to make a request of all of the people who will never read this, and it is this: Please stop talking about each other in sweeping generalities. Please. Most of you don’t really know one another. Most of you never talk to each other. Most of you read about the other the way one reads about Brad and Angelina or pygmies in Cameroon and assume you have the necessary knowledge and authority to get behind your keyboard, in your pulpit, or among your poetry circle and stamp “true” or “false” across someone’s existence.  And let’s be honest, most of you enter that study of the other with a fairly heavy bias.

Let me pause and interject two footnotes to that last paragraph (which aren’t really footnotes since I’m placing them here, but anyway…) First, how self-righteous does it sound for me to say “you” instead of “we” in those sentences? Fairly self-righteous, I’m sure. That’s okay. I’m guilty of some of these sins, but in this particular instance I’m often stuck in the middle. I just am. I’m at a place in my journey of life with God that I’m eager to know him and be like Jesus, and I’ll engage anyone from any perspective who takes that seriously. I won’t agree with all of them, and it turns out that the Spirit of God actually lives inside of me, so I need fear no man and no man’s teaching. I need to be vigilant and discerning, of course, but not fearful or quick to dismiss. I have encountered plenty that is misguided, silly, and just plain wrong, and I’m confident of the Spirit’s ability to continue to guide me into truth and away from error. That may not always happen instantaneously; there will be times when the revelation is more gradual. Though we fear this, it is not unbiblical or a cause for panic or new law. So my point is this – I don’t find myself innocent in this mess, but I am more often willing to hear and learn from a wider spectrum of folks in the Kingdom. That hasn’t always been true, but I’m thankful that it is today.

Second, I accused folks of being biased. This has become a dirty word, I suppose, but it need not be so. We’re all biased about almost everything. It’s true. I’m not asking anyone to pay a penalty for being biased. I’m just asking us all to be self-aware enough to see our own leanings and honest enough to acknowledge them in public discourse. When we view someone or something a certain way and we encounter an alternative view, we are almost always, by nature, suspicious. This does not make us mean or mindless, it makes us human. To be biased is human. To admit our bias and ask for the strength to work through and overcome it when necessary is divine. (I made that up, but it sounds good, don’t you think?)

Now, back to our storyline – the part where everyone is reading about one another and making generalized declarations about one another’s rightness or goodness or kindness or truthiness or hippieness. It would be great if we could just cut that out. I’m not saying we can’t call a spade a spade. If someone says something about God or his Kingdom that you find to be patently false and you’re confident you have the proper context for that statement, by all means, tell folks the truth. Just be specific. Talk about that statement made by that person. Don’t lump that person and everyone who associates with them together and declare that they’re all guilty of subverting the Gospel. In my opinion, that approach has no positive net effect for the Kingdom.

Let’s break this down…

One of the primary areas where my tribe and I seem to be in no man’s land is the chasm between the very loosely and poorly defined “emerging church” and the very loosely and poorly defined “reformed (or occasionally non-reformed) Truth-upholding folks who aren’t down with the emerging church.” How’s that for clarity? If you know what I’m talking about, great. If not, even better. I identify myself and our church community as being in between worlds in this phenomenon for a few reasons. Some folks think our church fits in one of these camps; some folks think we fit in the other. (And we usually think we just don’t fit, period.) I read from both sides of the aisle. I have friends on both sides of the aisle. I think folks on both sides of the aisle are right. I think folks on both sides of the aisle are wrong.

If we want to discuss what’s worth reading, hearing, embracing, or excluding from any particular person or church in all of that, I’m on board. Let’s do it. Let’s just be specific. Let’s don’t oversimplify or pretend like thousands of real people and churches are one big glob of this or that. They aren’t. Life is complicated, and church and theology are nuanced. Pretending that isn’t true doesn’t advance truth; it muddles and suppresses it.

In fairness, this is a cancer on both sides of this particular controversy. Many within the emerging circles are guilty of making broad and sweeping critiques of the established church. They unfairly dismiss genuine servants of God as over-certain or too traditional or dead in their orthodoxy. They marginalize preaching or discipleship or even the Bible, and in doing so they mock and trivialize the legitimate and essential role that those outside their realm play in the Kingdom. Again – not everyone who would be identified as “emerging” (and these labels are so indefinable that it’s silly, but that’s another topic for another time) is guilty of this, but you don’t have to look hard to find it.

On the other hand, many critics of the emerging church make the same mistakes. They talk about a movement that doesn’t really believe in truth, that universally devalues the Scriptures, and that makes an idol of community and authenticity. They declare that the true Gospel cannot be found among these people and that their message and methodology is so man-centered that God has been reduced to an afterthought – a buddy who sits in the circle with you and tells you you’re okay just as you are.

Both are right. Both are wrong. Most – probably all – of these criticisms originated in something real, something true.

Churches are really dying and becoming irrelevant to people because their misguided allegiance to a modernist understanding of life has so defined their view of God and truth that they no longer worship God – they worship being right. God’s people are withering in isolation because churches have exalted preaching and teaching and programming and neglected the fullness of being the life-giving, life-together Body of Christ. Non-believers are perishing because the Gospel is being reduced and packaged and marketed without regard for what Jesus taught about how the world would know he was from God (more on that later). That stuff is happening, and when folks in the emerging church point it out, they are not wrong.

Likewise, there are those within the emerging circles who are pursuing a kind of community that is scarcely different than any support group the world has to offer. There are some who find little use for the Bible and who have discarded its teaching along with the teachers who they tired of. There are those who never speak of sin and who find no occasion to acknowledge our need for someone to save us from ourselves. There are those who have embraced a secular, postmodern philosophy with as much vigor as the folks they critique embraced rationalist modernism. There are those who are trendy and worldly and guided by a spirit of rebellion rather than a spirit of truth. These people exist, and when the critics identify these tendencies as error, they are not wrong.

However, speaking in either direction in broad and general terms is a really bad idea. I know folks in both worlds who completely shatter these molds, and they aren’t as rare as most think. None of us are completely free of error, and I fear we’ll miss something God wants for us if we use one another’s mistakes to make premature and wholesale dismissals. Once again, it is appropriate to be discerning and clear about what the Spirit reveals as true and untrue. But to assume in this case that the time has come to declare an entire group of people apostate or useless to the Kingdom is, I think, an error and an obstacle to God’s work in the world.

We need to learn to have real dialogue that allows for disagreement and discussion about truth and error and not substitute talking past and about one another for true biblical pursuit of reconciliation, restoration, and truth. We need to talk to each other. We need to learn from each other.

Much of the emerging world does need to grow up and (back) into some aspects of life with Jesus that they rejected in their necessary, but sometimes protracted, deconstruction. They do need the Bible and they do need to root their communities more deeply in its teachings. They do need to talk about sin and transformation. They do need to learn that healthy deconstruction is about acknowledging God’s right to change anything and everything we think we know rather than about usurping His authority by willfully rejecting everything we’ve known and been taught in order to start from scratch. They do need to be sure they’re embracing the bigness and fullness of God and our need for Him.

Much of the anti-emerging crowd does need to engage the reality that talking and writing about Jesus and the authority of Scripture does not replace living like Jesus lived (and told us to live). They need to own up to the failures of the system and realize that, while there may be “nothing new under the sun,” a lot of the old and current stuff is broken. If they don’t care for the emerging solutions, that’s fine, but they need to either get serious about transformation or forfeit credibility to dispute the efforts of those who are sincerely interested in being the church God wants more than the church we’ve grown comfortable with. They need to recognize that morality is not just about sex and alcohol, but also about money and food and power and comfort and justice. They need to believe the whole Bible if they believe any of it, and acknowledge that real community is not just a good teaching of Scripture, but a necessary part of being the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) and of declaring His Kingship and authority to the world (John 17).

Both groups need to have enough faith in the truth-guiding power of the Spirit to consider the possibility that God is even better than they think He is, and that some of that will be revealed in a bigger, bolder Gospel of the Kingdom. They need to be humble enough to see some of those elements of who Jesus is and the fullness of His Gospel thriving among believers on "the other side."

So I make a motion that we do what we can to eschew movements and labels and generalities. That cuts both ways. Let’s not waste our time trying to get on this bandwagon or that one and let’s not expend energy characterizing these phenomena as though they can be accurately and simply characterized. Let’s talk to people. Let’s be the church, and let’s get to know some folks who seem to think that means something different than we do. Let’s stop putting on conferences about “those people” without inviting those people to be a part of the dialogue – and let’s go be part of the dialogue if they invite us, no matter how hostile we think the environment might be. Let’s quit rolling out blog posts, articles, and books critiquing people we’ve never met and churches we’ve never experienced face-to-face.

If we can reform the way we engage one another, I believe
that we’ll all get a little more of God and be better followers of Jesus. Though
many of them are oblivious to these kinds of controversies, and most of them
have never heard the term “emerging church,” the community of Jesus people I
call home believes and practices this idea – that healthy and broad experience with
God’s people is good for us and pleasing to Him. I believe this way of life has
changed us and, though still terribly imperfect and quirky, we love God and
people more than we did before. It seems that someone once declared those two
things to be of some importance in the Kingdom.

(And for what it’s worth, this goes for those doing battle over election, supernatural gifts, and any other number of controversies among those who claim to follow Jesus.)

Let’s do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God, and let someone else take up the cause of continually announcing and dissecting division and disunity. I understand that, to everyone involved, the truth of the Gospel seems to be at stake. I agree, but it is no less at stake in how we engage with one another about these issues than it is in the issues themselves. I point to the very words of Jesus – words He spoke to the Father about us (specifically those that would believe after his death and resurrection) and about the declaration of His Gospel in the world. He prayed that we “…may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Amen. May it be so.