his truth is marching on: scripture, ministry & the postmodern church

last week on facebook i recommended a book to an old friend, which began a lengthy online discussion about postmodernism and the church. i typically enjoy wrestling through theology with a fellow believer, but what was difficult in this exchange was that all sorts of red flags went up for my friend when we began discussing the emerging church movement, and he ended his last post with what was, essentially, an exhortation for me come back to the fold.

it saddened me, because though we are both sincere in our pursuit of Christ and probably believe 90% of the same things with regard to the gospel, somehow we were speaking different languages.

it fired me up enough that i thought i'd share some of my thoughts to my friend with you:

Often, Christians think postmodernism is relativism and an enemy of the gospel, and that modernism is right or true. But the bible and the early church were formed in a pre-modern context. One worldview isn't superior or better equipped for sharing the gospel, but in order to share the gospel, like a missionary, we need to understand the culture that we are trying to reach. The church is simply not reaching people the way we are doing things now. The Mainline churches are dwindling, and while megachurches continue to grow, they are largely attracting bored believers from other churches, not people who don't already know Jesus.

The premise of the book is basically that, in a postmodern context, if we want people to come to faith in Christ we need to stop trying to attract people to church and instead BE the church in the world. We know that ever since the curtain of the temple was torn in two, we have access to God without a mediator, but we often act as though church is still primarily where God lives, and people can't experience God without coming through our doors. The book is about what incarnational ministry looks like--being Christ in the world and recontextualizing the gospel, like a missionary would, to the people we are already called into relationship with.

My experience in attending an emerging Presbyterian church plant, and in all the reading I've done, I've found a markedly high esteem of Scripture and an honest emphasis on the significance of the cross-- to redeem our broken, sinful hearts and restore us to right relationship with God, and also to redeem the brokeness that sin has wreaked on the world--to inaugurate the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached so prolifically. If anything, I think the emerging church may have a fuller picture of the significance and scope of Jesus' redemptive work.

Jesus called people to follow him, not to espouse a litany of beliefs. Which is not to say that there are not clear cut beliefs that we as Christians ought to hold. Scripture is clear on many things. But perspicuous? No, I do not believe that is an attribute of Scripture. Sixty-six books written over the course of thousands of years by dozens of authors in several languages, in forms as varied as poetry, prophesy, history, personal correspondence--that is confusing! People go to seminary, study Greek and Hebrew, read and write sermons and books, and join bible studies to learn more about a book whose meaning isn't clear, obvious, or easy to apply.

The postmodern idea is not that truth doesn't exist--it is that we cannot fully know it, because we are limited--by our perspective, the finite nature of our lives and minds and because of our sin. I always bring my own prejudices, beliefs, and life experiences to whatever I read, which will inevitably color my interpretation--causing me perhaps to take away something different than what the author (and God) had in mind. This is why the emerging church values studying the Word in community and engaging with believers from other communities--to get a fuller, truer understanding of the Word than we may find on our own.

This also serves as a check and balance to someone going off alone and twisting Scripture to say something it doesn't say--a concern for the Church as a whole. Reading an ancient Middle Eastern text with a 21st American century lens will cause some truth to get lost in translation (even with the gift of the Holy Spirit helping us to understand), which is why we all value having ministers and teachers help us to interpret Scripture. 

As Christians, we know that Truth is a person--to know the Truth is to be in a relationship with Jesus. Look at Jesus' own ministry--if anything, he asked more questions than he answered, was intentionally vague and often refused to explain himself! If Jesus wasn't concerned with defending himself, why do we feel we need to defend him?

Truth is not in danger or threatened by any doubts or questions people may raise. If anything, raising those doubts and questions makes us go back to Scripture to understand the source of our faith and helps us to be able to articulate and live it better. 

Shouldn't the Church be in a continual process of reformation? Do you really think the (Catholic) Church went astray once and the Protestants set it all back in order once and for all? The Church is made up of sinful, broken people, and we are going to get it wrong from time to time. Look at the Church's now-reformed stances on slavery or segregation.

The Holy Spirit works in the midst of communities to help us understand Scripture and calls us back to the Word (again, a Person!) It's not about making up new stuff, it's about being willing to ask whether the way we have been interpreting things is in fact in alignment with Scripture.

Isn't it possible that we have at times, as Christians, enthroned tradition over Christ?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having just now read this offering from March 28, I am really taken by your clarity, insight and sophistication of reasoning. As, I suppose, a somewhat conservative, "mainline" believer, I find my self in agreement with what you (and I guess the writer of the book) have articulated here. I look forward to discussing this further with you in Rhode Island in September.
Love, Dad

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