Saturday, May 9, 2009

April 09 Meeting

At right: American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Nine of us met on April 21st to start our discussion about postmodernism and the church, and what it means to us. Steve W. and Robin M. shared a summary and questions based on Robin’s paper titled, Entering the Emerging Church Conversation

Matthew offered some context on what postmodernism is. Modernity says that there is one right answer and that it can be discovered. Words have definite meanings. In post-modernity there may not be one right answer but, at least for Christians, there are still absolutes, such as the command to love one another. We talked about situations where showing love means pointing out behaviors that can be harmful to a person or to those they love around them, and how it is important to have a caring relationship with that person to earn the right to do so. Matthew continued that in modernity, the meanings of words are derived from the speaker. In post-modernity, they are more often derived from the listener. He later shared his story about what led him to the emerging church conversation and the impact that postmodernism had on his theology. His story is summarized below.

We discussed various controversies within the church and looked at how the views of modernity and post-modernity have shaped these dialogues. We have all seen church debates about things like how one is baptized, drinking alcohol, the role of women in the church, human sexuality, or asking questions about commonly held doctrines. Anthony described experiences in churches where doctrines were enforced by fear. We discussed the role of the Holy Spirit in teaching us. We agreed that while we cannot be a “lone ranger” in the community of the church, we can and should grow to be a fully equipped “army of one.” We also discussed how church practices that were helpful in one culture could be harmful in another, such as the many impositions of European cultural practices among native cultures by missionaries in the name of the church.

In post-modernity we can hold different opinions about a matter without needing to be convinced we’re right. This is an important reason why there can be such a thing as an “emerging church conversation.” Redemption is worked out in many aspects in our lives, not so much as a series of theological arguments that are won or lost, but by the direction our lives follow towards the way of Christ.

Matthew’s Story

Matthew’s youth pastor led him to Christ in his early teens. Before a week passed, that youth pastor was in jail, as this adult horribly abused his relationship of trust with one of Matthew’s friends. Abuse of power continued to be a theme that Matthew encountered during his journey. Because of his pastor's actions, just after coming to Christ, Matthew wandered away from the church.

Although Matthew’s parents didn’t attend church often, he was enrolled in a Christian school, and that was part of what ultimately influenced him in the direction of missions through High School and college. Every summer, Matthew would travel to a different continent, 24 countries in all. At one point though, his activities and opportunities began to close in due to a health problem. Some trusted church friends and advisors blamed him for the problem telling him it was due to “unconfessed sin.” Others said that God had rejected him, and still others said he was being tested and that he needed more faith to continue in the mission field as if he did not have the issue with his heart. These viewpoints damaged Matthew’s faith for a time, and once again he left the institutional church. Although he remained conservative in his behavior and beliefs, he began to wander and question. What did he really believe? What about Eastern religions? Should he abandon religion if this is all that it offered – judgment and an angry, vindictive God? Should he go to a Christian college? Was there some form of Church that did not think this way? Despite these questions his faith grew, and he became convinced that, although he could no longer spend much time overseas, God had not rejected him, and that being a missionary could be done in his home country.

Matthew tried youth ministry, but often encountered bad theology there along with judgment, and abuse of power. In one situation, he and a youth ministry coworker encountered someone being beaten up by a gang. They interceded to try to save the victim, willingly taking punches for the man who was being attacked, while refusing to fight back against the gang. Instead they told them that Jesus forbade them to harm the gang members, but that they would suffer for the man who was being attacked. They came into work bruised and bloodied from the encounter; Matt with bruised ribs and Matt’s coworker with a broken nose. They explained their situation as a way to talk about the brilliance of Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek, since the gang simply refused to attack them after a few blows, amazed that someone would do this for a person they did not even know. They were fired for setting a bad example to the youth by getting involved with gang violence. Matt’s coworker walked away from Christ.

While serving under a youth pastor, he witnessed that pastor speaking about the dangers of oral herpes to a youth group, 80% of whom had the disease. The church promptly fired that youth pastor for mentioning oral sex. In another situation, he witnessed a new youth pastor who felt so threatened by an old volunteer pastor's relationships, that he drove the volunteer pastor from the church.

In another situation, while working as a youth pastor, Matthew was allowed to speak before the main church body at a mostly white upper class congregation about the things he’d seen on the mission field, such as AIDS, poverty and the plight of victims of sex trafficked debt slavery. He spoke of a vision of church where the poor, the widow, the outcast, and the alien were given the seats of honor in the church body. He challenged the church body to focus its spending outside its walls, on the needy, and not inside them (on better cushioned seats, for example). He also spoke about the need for this particular church to focus on the poor locally and to become racially diverse, saying in that message “We who are rich need the poor more than they need our money. We have the same curse as the pirates in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean (which had just come out) –we have the best food, but we can’t taste it; the finest drink, and we don’t know it. We have the whole world but we have lost the ability to feel it. Everyone loves the rung above them as they climb the corporate ladder; Jesus’ way and brilliance was and is to love those on the rung below him [and us]. The poor redefine our lives and allow us to discover what is truly most human, most beautiful, and most important – everything that we have missed. Having the poor in our lives allows us to rediscover the value of a dollar, and the value of a dollar is nothing, except that it can save a life and a soul.” Again, he was let go as this vision conflicted with the head pastor’s “growth strategy.”

These experiences influenced Matthew’s thinking and theology, since, what you experience shapes what you think about and perceive. Now in his late 20’s, his theology has radically changed. He decided that he would never again accept pay to do church ministry. “When it is your job to say that which God is directing you to, and your pay depends on your audience liking you, you will always have conflict,” he said, “especially if you look at those who God asked to speak in the Old Testament, they always said the thing the Israelites were least interested in hearing. Those entrusted to be God’s voice in that period had to risk life and limb, luckily I only lost a paycheck!” He also found that being a paid institutional pastor too often means that you are expected to not do what you are calling your people to do. For example, you can call your congregation to confess their sins and weaknesses to one another and be held accountable, but you are expected to be seen as above the fray—a leader without weakness. The problem, he said, isn’t just disobedience to what God is saying, but that this elevated status of the staff prevents paid ministers from having a deep level of intimacy with those around them, and leads to fake friendships. The pastor winds up being more of a counselor and cannot be a participant in their own church community.

Matthew’s dream is in the direction of non-institutional, organic church. Church should grow but be free from the pressure of ego driven growth that kills the very essence of what church should be. It also leads congregations into unnecessary debt in order to support church building programs and budgets. Church leaders should not hold “dual citizenship” as a professional class; this keeps the church inactive and keeps the pastor from being held accountable. There should be a crowd of teachers and elders and all kinds of people sharing in the areas of their gifts. His dream is in the direction of the emerging / missional church; where resources are channeled to the needy, not buildings and staff; where people are empowered to lead, not just be gathered like sheep; where the focus is on the needs of each individual’s growth, not on the need to maintain order. Finally, he envisions church as a place where pastors don’t have to miss out on the very community they are shepherding. See more on Matthew's vision for church at CollaborativeChurch.

Join us on Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 6:45 p.m. at Laura’s Cuban Restaurant in Hollywood, when we meet again to continue our conversation about emerging church, postmodernism and community. You can RSVP and find directions here.



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