While previous posts address history, artistic expression, and worship, today’s post examines Emerging/Emergent cultural engagement. I briefly addressed “missionality” in a previous post, but will reframe the subject with today’s thoughts by offering specific, contextual examples of what it means to be missional.
Those in Emerging/Emergent communities often describe cultural engagement, what some call evangelism, as a “missional” activity. In fact, in the literature of the Emergent church one is less likely to come across references to evangelistic strategies or schemes; rather, one more often reads about missional trajectories of cultural interaction, and carefully defined statements about living within postmodern culture.
Emergent leader Spencer Burke, in Making Sense of the Church (2003), explains that “the warrior metaphor has permeated the Christian subculture, particularly our approach to evangelism.”1 According to Burke, in a culture given to obsession with violence, the warrior metaphor often defines the way evangelical Christians define relationships with those outside of the Christian fold. Burke lists organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, recalls singing military oriented songs about evangelism as a youth, and participating in Bible “sword drills” in Sunday school. There are, no doubt, images of war in the Bible, Burke avers, but offers the gardener metaphor as an alternative way to imagine evangelism. Burke writes: "While warriors press on no matter what the elements, gardeners step back on occasion. They know that working the soil incessantly leads to burnout. They understand the importance of rest – of allowing a field to lie fallow for a year in order to regenerate itself. At the same time, however, they’re also keenly aware of the mystery of spiritual growth. Spiritual gardening is not an exact science. While gardeners faithfully do their part, they experience peace knowing that God is ultimately responsible for the crop."2 Here Burke replaces an evangelistic concept that many find offensive and ineffective (though images of war and spiritual warfare dot the Bible) with another picture from the Bible that allows discussion of a kind of organic evangelism.
Another striking example of missional relations with culture comes from Christian writer Donald Miller. In Blue Like Jazz (2003), Miller relates a story from college where he and several friends (all Christians) constructed a confessional booth in a high-traffic area of campus many students milled about after wild college parties. The group affixed a sign to the front of the structure that read “Confess your sins.” Miller then recalls what a friend said about the confessional: "We are not actually going to accept confessions…[w]e are going to confess to them [the party-goers]. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them."3 Miller’s story captures the ways in which Emerging/Emergent engagement with culture creates constructive spaces for dialogue and conversation and invites healing and wholeness in decidedly non-confrontational ways.
Emerging pastor Steve Taylor offers the vision of “spiritual tourism” to explain the missional possibilities of postmodern Christianity. In The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (2004), Taylor explains that some tourists are recreational in nature, those whose travels bring rest and respite, others experiential, always seeking a thrill, while others are more existentially inclined and internalize traveling experiences. “Christian formation,” Taylor writes, “involves the move from experiential and experimental seeker to existential relocation to a new place of being and understanding. It is in essence a call to tour, to journey spiritually with God. It is a move away from recreation and diversion toward an inward relocation of heart and mind.” While Taylor admits that such a description sounds like consumer spirituality, he adamantly states that within the context of creating community and attempting to bridge conversations with culture, “the church is cooperating with the way our contemporary culture accesses information and experience and reflects on them. The church allows tourists to navigate their way through the rich resources of the Christian tradition….[t]he church is a participator with the unseen wind of the Spirit of God.”4
Another Emergent writer, Mark Driscoll, suggests that the Apostle Paul modeled postmodern ways of engaging postmodern culture. Commenting on the account of Paul on Mars Hill from Acts 17, Driscoll contrasts Paul’s preaching methodology at the Jewish synagogues with his disputation with the philosophers of Athens. Paul’s listeners at synagogues were familiar with the Old Testament, and thus his sermons began with a common point of reference, categories that both preacher and audience understood. In Athens, on the other hand, Driscoll points out, Paul first referenced Greek culture to attain common ground with his listeners before moving on to “biblical” categories of thought and reason. Paul noted the spiritual posture of the Athenians, for example, quoted a number of Greek poets, and later took these concepts and brought them into a Christian framework. “In our day,” Driscoll remarks, “this would be akin to unearthing partial truths about God from a culture’s film, music, comedy, sports, literature, theater, philosophy, economics, medicine, or politics and working from those truths to the truth of Jesus as the ultimate answer to all human questions and cultural problems.”5
Previous posts attempt to locate the Emerging/Emerging church through a discussion of its relation to postmodernism, explores its understanding of Christian history, examines the ways in which Emerging/Emergent thinkers and leaders formulate preaching, frame worship services, pursue spiritual formation, and conduct cultural engagement. While the foregoing captures major trends of the movement and outlines some of its important contours, a clearer understanding can only come from participation in the life of an Emerging/Emergent community. I spent Lent 2005 with an Emergent community in Houston, Ecclesia, and forthcoming posts will narrate my experiences there.
1Spencer Burke, Making Sense of the Church, 144.
3Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 117-119.
4 Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church?, 81-97, quotes from 83-84, 87-88.
5 Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out, 118-122, quote from 121.