The Mushy Middle series: on culture

… a series of posts on politics, church life, culture, theology-discipleship, and ministry

It seems that it’s not only the mushy middle in politics and church life that are being pushed out, but also the mushy middle in culture.  Our culture in the western world was satisfied with the way they receive news in the form of newspaper and television media.  They took in whatever the television news media dished out as unbiased news. Young people of post-moderns do not buy this today.  All news are biased.  Younger generations want their news personalized to suit their taste and interests.  With the news media of iPods, smart phones and Internet, they are able to receive exactly the type of news they want. They can filter out news they are not interested in watching or reading.  When I read news today, I rarely read from a physical newspaper.  I either get my news from the Internet or have it sent to me via email.  I go directly to the category of news I want to read or watch, e.g., world, technology, health, etc.

When young people shop, they rarely go to big department stores to buy all their items. Department stores tried to cater to everyone’s needs. This was wishy-washy and is the mushy middle.  It is not sexy, and is no longer the way to shop.  Department stores are increasingly in danger of shutting down.  Young people prefer to shop at specialized stores that only offer blue jeans, cell phones, women’s or baby clothing, sporting equipment, running shoes (not everything). Big department stores are even attempting to divide their floor space into specialized sections so that they look similar to small specialty stores.  My point in this post is this.  The mushy middle in culture also seems to be in the process of being pushed out.  Today’s youth and post-modern culture want to receive whatever they consume in specialized formats.

Why the emerging church movement died

Is the emerging church movement dead?

When the emerging church (EC) movement first caught my attention during seminary, I was impressed with a certain open-mindedness about it. As I learned more about it and about some of the people in this movement, I learned that were not as open-minded as I had initially thought.  Some sectors of the EC had moved away from the core doctrines of the faith that I held as being essential to the faith; otherwise, Christianity would no longer be Christianity.  The EC projected itself as a movement that was in constant rebellion against traditional Christianity. Almost everything the EC movement said was against the status quo and it identified itself as a new brand of Christianity that was “not like the others”. Although I do not consider myself traditional, I do not dislike tradition because it offers countless benefits for all Christians. My view of the EC movement eventually turned from positive to negative in a short period of time. Since then, I have never paid much further attention to the emerging church movement.

However, to the emerging church movement, I give credit for two main things I admired about it:

  1. For seeing traditional Christianity from a critical perspective.  Much of traditional Christianity fails to see itself from an outsider’s point-of-view.
  2. For being open to making some positive changes to traditional Christianity.

HT: Out of Ur blog has a positive eulogy on the dead emerging church movement.

Our denominational differences and commonalities

When I hear the bickering that goes on between mainline churches and evangelical churches, I shake my head and laugh at what both sides are saying about each other. Mainline churches accuse evangelical churches of sheep-stealing; but the fact is that this is far less a significant issue than the baptised-confirmed members in mainline churches having chosen to stop attending church on their own, even before they have decided to make the switch. If they have switched to an evangelical church, they have chosen to do so likely because they have found that their once-staggering faith had been reignited and have experienced freedom and refreshment through the work of the Holy Spirit. Traditional mainline churches need to realize this and stop the blaming.

When young people choose to stop attending church, they do so mainly because their faith has not been solidly formed, and/or they no longer see church as being a significant community to belong to, except for, perhaps, the purposes of getting married, baptized and buried (or what is known as “match, hatch, and dispatch”). The fact is, many no longer even view these rites of “match, hatch and dispatch” as significant life rituals.

Increasingly, evangelical-conservative churches are also facing the same problems as mainline churches. Many young people raised in evangelical homes have chosen to stay away after they leave home for school. Why? Perhaps it was due to ineffective discipleship? Church is no longer a significant part of their lives because they have been overtaken by the mores and values of the dominant culture. They no longer see church as a significant community to belong to, so they choose never to return to church after college or university.

It is an undisputed fact that the majority of teens, twenty to thirty-somethings do not attend church, and, many, have absolutely no idea what church and the Christian faith is about. Many have never even stepped foot inside of a church and do not personally know anyone who is a regular church attender. Thus, it is safe to assume that we are living in a post-Christian culture.

Since we are living in a post-Christian society, or what I’ve heard some call a “repaganized” society, I am increasingly convinced that the church’s call to God’s mission (Missio Dei) must be approached within a contextualized framework that acknowledges a new generation of postmoderns who have no idea what the Christian faith is really about. We can no longer assume any knowledge of Christian faith. They may be spiritual, but are not religious. The problem of the church is that many who come from the traditional evangelical and mainline churches are either slow to recognize this, or they don’t want to admit this as a real-world fact. Many are living in what I call “lala land” and are self-deceived into believing that our society is still in an era of “Christendom”. They are stuck in their current framework and cannot figure out why their churches are seeing a greater decline in membership. This is true of many traditional denominations, from Lutheran (ELCA), Anglican/Episcopalian Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist, American Baptist, United Church (UCC), and others.

I wish both evangelicals and mainliners would stop fighting each other and try to begin to understand each other, and understand their common struggles, and begin to work together in God’s mission. It is funny how denominational lines and theological differences can prevent cooperation. Yes, I know there are still theological differences between mainliners and evangelicals. Sometimes, I see hope, and sometimes I don’t see any glimmer of hope of bridge-building and real ecumenism. My personal hope is to help each other to begin to understand our differences and our commonalities so that we can cooperate and do ministry together within a postmodern society without the bickering, blaming, and high-nosed snobbery that goes on.

For the near future, I’m thinking about starting a series of posts to discuss the differences and commonalities between evangelicals and mainliners for the purpose of building mutual understanding and demystification.

Ancient-future: does the future really lie in the past?

In the emerging church, some people have been rediscovering the ancient church. I consider myself evangelical, but not emerging, but have also discovered the past, and have been reading a little of some of the early church fathers like Iranaeus, Basil, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, etc. The emerging church movement should be more careful about completely buying into the historic past and thinking that the past has all the answers for the future. Looking into the past is not necessarily a key to discovering the truth for the present and future. The early church fathers had much theological debates about the trinity, the creeds, the eucharist, the persons of Christ and Holy Spirit, and many more issues. They all said some things that could be seen as being heretical today. Our newfound romanticized notion of the past is not necessarily as rosy as it seems. The early church fathers all fought over issues to the bitter end but could never come to any conclusive agreements.

With this being said, should we assume what the early church fathers taught was the gospel truth? No, certainly not. If we did, we would never be able to come to any theological conclusions on any issue because the church fathers never did themselves. Today’s new found enthusiasm for the patristics is wonderful, and it does help give us a deeper and richer sense of the history, apostolicity, and universality of the church, but it doesn’t necessarily give us any real solid answers. Does the future really lie in the past? It does and it doesn’t. The past is the past. I agree that it is good to study historic Christianity but doing so doesn’t carry more merit than any other academic discipline that looks back into its history. History is also full of mistakes—even grave mistakes. History should be read for the purpose of learning about past mistakes, but also for learning about what worked right. This is why the study of the early church fathers should never be seen as some sort of rediscovery of some long lost secret truths. History has shown that it can just as easily make bad mistakes as the present and future.

This search into the historic past in the use of icons, lectio divina, and etc. is nice but we must keep in mind that it is only one way of expressing spirituality; and it doesn’t necessarily work for all people either. In looking at it from the other side of the fence, many Christians who come from liturgical traditions like Anglicanism or Catholicism have also found that their traditional forms of liturgical worship have not satisfied their search for higher spirituality either. That is why they turned to evangelicals and/or charismatics for a taste of an alternate spirituality. We should realize that lectio divina or stations of the cross, and other ancient forms of spiritual practice are not the only ways and means to experience spirituality.

Each style of spirituality has its own unique value. Evangelical spirituality also has a rich spirituality. In recent decades, however, evangelical and pentecostal megachurches have gained a bad rap for being marketplace-driven, following the latest fashions, being success-driven and program-oriented, etc. This has hampered the richness in evangelical spirituality rather than helped it. This is one of the reasons for the rise in the emerging church. This megachurch phenomena is really a very recent trend in evangelicalism and dates back only to the last 20-30 years. It is not representative of early evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before this time, early evangelicalism was known for genuine piety, humility, deep spirituality, and small-time church-ianity. It would be a shame for evangelicals to lose this kind of humble spirituality. If evangelicals forget about their own history, evangelicals will leave behind a rich history and spirituality. Each style of Christian expression has its own unique flavour of spirituality. And each style brings with it a wonderful way to express and experience spirituality, including the Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Anabaptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and etc. Why do you think the church continues to discover new forms and styles of worship? The Holy Spirit is constantly showing the Christian church, in each generation, new ways of worship. So I think there is hope for the future. (From left to right: Saint Basile-the-Great, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus; Tertullian of Carthage)

The attraction of Nooma: Rob Bell

If you’re younger–maybe in your 20s or 30s, you might know who Rob Bell is or have seen the Nooma series. I recently started watching the Nooma series by Rob Bell and have started using it in a small group, though, on an experimental level. Rob Bell portrays himself as a speaker who is “with it” and I can see how his image appeals to post-modern young adults. He wears the trendy thick black rim glasses, has a cool haircut, and wears his shirts the right way with the top button open. On the image side of the picture, everything seems great. He looks like a pretty cool dude and his image fits real nicely with the young adults crowd. The production of the Nooma series is very good quality too. There is definitely a post-modern look to it—it’s very chic.

I have tried to assess the theology and theological depth of emerging leaders like Rob Bell as objectively as I could. I don’t even know if Bell considers himself to be emerging but that is just my perception of him. Also according to my perception, there seems to be very little bible knowledge taught from the Nooma series. I have noticed that the theology is not very deep either. Maybe I’m too uptight and should just take it easy. I may be totally wrong but if I am wrong, I am open to being corrected. On a personal level ,I have absolutely nothing against Rob Bell. I feel that his intentions are great and he desires to reach out to the post-modern generation. I really don’t like to be overly critical but I had to think about this long and hard about this before I decided to post this. I cannot say whether I am either for or against Nooma at this point because I see some of the positive aspects in the Nooma series. Bell does ask some thought provoking questions that causes one to look deep inside oneself. However, I have come to the conclusion that if I was a new Christian who was seeking to grow in the Christian faith, I probably would not be able to receive enough biblical instruction from Nooma. I cannot see it sufficiently feeding a newborn Christian. Nooma is like milk and I can’t see anyone going beyond the “milk stage” if they were to continue on nourishing only on Nooma. You might also compare this to eating at McDonald’s or Burger King every meal and expecting to be able to grow healthy and strong. It might taste real good, smell good, and look good too, but can we get a balanced diet from junk food?

I have also wondered if this could potentially be benignly detrimental to the younger generations of young adults who already have little or no knowledge of the bible. When I was growing up as a young person in an evangelical church, I think I received quite a high level of bible knowledge. Where will today’s emerging followers of Christ get solid biblical instruction if they cannot get it from emerging churches? Young people and young adults need stronger bible and theological teaching and if they cannot get it in the emerging movement, they will have to get it from somewhere else. Perhaps the evangelical churches? It is my hope and prayer that God will raise up more spiritual leaders who will teach and nurture our younger generations so that they can gain a deeper theological and biblical knowledge and come to know God more in a greater way.

Post-modern, relevant, evangelical but not emerging

I have been an observer of the emerging movement for a little while now. Emergent and emerging leaders have tried very hard to differentiate themselves from traditional evangelicals. They claim they are post-modern but so are today’s post-modern evangelicals. To claim that evangelicals are not post-modern and out of touch is incorrect. I think of myself as post-modern but it doesn’t mean that I have to think of myself as emerging. I also understand the challenges and limitations of evangelicalism but I’m not a fundamentalist, nor emerging. I like to learn about new understandings of theology, but my theology is still neo-conservative, not liberal, nor emerging. I try to be as relevant as I can be with the younger generations of young people, but I’m not an old stodgy type of evangelical and perhaps not really hip or cool either, but I’m not emerging. Evangelicals like me still see themselves as perhaps neo-evangelicals (if there’s such a word) but we’re not emerging. I do not believe emerging has a monopoly on the post-modern, and emerging is not the only movement that identifies itself with post-modernism.

With this spiritual and theological outlook, a person might try to classify evangelicals like me as emerging on the inside, but I do not. I can identify with much of emerging’s disappointments with evangelicalism but I can still identify myself with evangelicalism. My definition of being “evangelical” is wide and cannot be limited to strict fundamentalism. To say that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are synonymous is absolutely incorrect. Emerging became dissatisfied with evangelicalism because they saw the old stodgy fundamentalism and chose to reject it. Well here’s news for you: so did I, but I’m still evangelical. I think many evangelicals like myself have very similar outlook on church and theology but we do not have to identify ourselves as emerging.

Emergent: Doug Pagitt’s theology of universalism

I have grown more disappointed about Emergent`s leaders. Why have I become disappointed? I recent heard an interview of an Emergent leader, Doug Pagitt, pastor at Solomon`s Porch and his theological beliefs really disappointed me and it left somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth. I must say, though, that his theology might not be representative of all of the Emergent leaders but it does give me a better idea of where some emergents stand. You can listen to it on YouTube here (part 1 and part 2). Doug Pagitt avoided all the questions that interviewer, Todd Friel, posed to him on Way of the Master Radio (part 1 and part 2). Pagitt didn’t answer even one of the questions in a forthright manner. He evaded the interviewer’s questions and didn’t seem knowledgeable about what Jesus actually said about hell. Doug Pagitt actually denied the existence of hell as a place where non-believers go to. He got very defensive and indirectly denied the existence of hell as a place where one’s soul goes to after this life on earth. Pagitt merely characterized hell as being a disconnection and disintegration with God but he denied its existence. Pagitt could not even agree with Jesus’ own description of hell as quoted from the bible. Friel also asked Pagitt: “I’m a good Buddhist, where does my soul go when I die?” Pagitt could not answer this question. He evaded his question and his response, if it was a response, was rather weak. His response to the question was: “You interact with God just as every other human being interacts with God.” However, this did not answer the question about the existence of hell being a place where non-believers go. Pagitt could not answer him directly and truthfully because if he did, he would have to reveal that he holds to a theology of universalism. This is where one believes that it does not matter which religion one believes in, eventually one will end up in heaven. Neither does Pagitt believe in the traditional biblical idea of judgment. He wanted to evade Friel’s question of what judgment was because he would otherwise have to reveal that he does not believe in an eternal damnation in a place called Hades. For Pagitt, hell is only a metaphor and does not really exist. Just listen to the interview yourself and you will understand. Judgment is only a metaphor because it is only a re-creation of a new heaven where everyone of any religion will end up. Furthermore, what really turned me off was that he turned around and attacked Friel, accusing him of not understanding the bible and how it should be used. That’s arrogant scholasticism! And note, scholasticism was what Luther fought against in the Roman Catholic church. Pagitt became defensive and resorted to using some high-end academic language that most ordinary post-modern people would not understand, e.g., “dual platonic cosmology”. Well, so much for trying to reach a post-modern generation by using academic language taught in seminary. If Pagitt really wants to do ministry to post-moderns, he better get it right with his evangelical brothers and sisters. Scholastic and generational pride should have no place in Christ’s church.

Emerging movement’s problem

In order to learn more about the emerging movement, I have read some books by various Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, plus emerging leaders like Dan Kimball, Eddie Gibbs, Ryan Bolger, and Robert Webber. I was attracted to emerging’s style of worship and the idea of generous orthodoxy and the fusion of ancient-future. As a post-modern evangelical, many of emerging’s ideas and concerns resonated with me; however, some of their unorthodox theology has turned me off. After having learned more about some of their leaders’ theologies, I will no longer consider myself emerging. I will still consider myself as an interested emerging-evangelical but not an emerging. I still classify myself as an evangelical who is concerned about how to be missional in a post-modern world.

Emergents are concerned about being missional in a post-modern world. However, it might disappoint some emergents to learn that they do not have a monopoly on being missional in a post-modern world. From what I’ve read and heard, I find that Emergent leaders have been overly critical of evangelicalism and have accused evangelicalism of not being effectively missional in a post-modern world. I find this very arrogant and self-righteous. Their attempt to differentiate themselves from traditional evangelicalism has actually caused division between themselves and evangelicals. Nevertheless, I am still interested in learning more about the emerging church movement. The emerging leaders are my brothers and sisters in Christ who have lost their way and my heart goes out to them. Since I heard some of what the Emergent leaders have said, I have become more hesitant to explore this movement as a full participant. I think if more evangelical Christians really did their research into emergent`s theology, they might also become more discerning about this whole emergent movement. I do not doubt their authenticity and desire to love and serve God and to do the work of God’s mission. The emerging movement is just as concerned as non-emerging evangelicals are about how to best carry out God’s mission in a post-modern age. However, in the process, some emergents have forsaken the real power of the gospel and have compromised on the authority of the bible. Evangelical reformers like Luther and Calvin risked their lives during the reformation era because they believed in the authority of scripture and worked hard to preserve it. Emergent`s leaders, however, seemed to have forgotten about the authority of scripture.

If I was a Buddhist or Muslim seeker looking for answers about the Christian faith, and I had to turn to Emergent’s leadership for answers, I would not be confident in their spiritual leadership. I’d even wonder if Emergent’s answer might steer one back to return to Buddhism or Hinduism. If I have lost faith in Emergent’s ability to discern the truth, I could not advise my seeker friends to turn to Emergent for answers or advice. There just seems to be too much compromise in order to appease the morals, values, and beliefs of a post-modern generation. They want to appease secular humanism by blending their values in order to be accepted by them. In the process of trying to be missional in post-modernism (which is a good thing), they have distanced themselves away from orthodox evangelical theology. They have lost their moorings and are like a lost ship in a sea, wailing through a muddy mixtures of doctrines. The traditional and orthodox evangelical theology of Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, and Spurgeon were anchored in the authority of the bible. They did not compromise on scriptural truths. Emergent, however, is dancing around with relativism in a secular humanistic post-modern culture. They may have started out from counter-cultural evangelicalism, but they have lost their effectiveness as salt and light in the world. Their liberal theology has resulted out of a fear that the power of the cross is insufficient. They feel they have to add to it in order to make it more acceptable. It weakens the proclamation of the gospel and will ultimately compromise God’s mission on earth and God’s mission to the post-modern generation. Does anyone have the authority to make the gospel of Christ more acceptable to anyone? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit who convicts one of sin and draws a person to Christ? The good news of Jesus does not need any help from humans. Any human work added to the good news is no longer gospel, rather, it becomes a human work and no longer the work of God.

Today’s Evangelicals: still "sold out" for Christ

I was surprised to hear the term “fundamentalist” used by some people to describe evangelicals. Most evangelicals do not even know what a fundamentalist is. It is actually a pejorative term that should not be used to describe evangelicals. Today’s evangelical churches have no resemblance in form and style with the evangelical churches of the 1960s or 1970s. Today’s Evangelicals have become “mainline” Christianity. The old mainline churches have lost their place of primacy to the evangelicals as the shapers of mainstream society.

In my experience of being a blend of pentecostal-evangelical-Lutheran, I kind of have my foot in both worlds and am familiar with both worlds. Post-modern evangelicals have a very acute understanding of what the post-modern world is about. They feel they are called to engage the world, e.g., social, political, financial. The New Evangelicals would repudiate separatism and anti-academia. The New Evangelicals do not want to return to the good ol’ days of Little House on the Prairie and Leave it to Beaver. In fact, they have no idea what it is. The new generation of evangelicals see themselves as post-modern, missional, prophetic, theologically-minded, and desire to make the practice of their faith and theology relevant to today’s post-modern age.

In today’s post-modern evangelical churches (or meeting places as some call it), their worship music, language, culture, and ways of speaking are so post-modern that one might even have to look twice to differentiate it from post-modern culture. I am not saying that the post-modern evangelicals condone a lax moral lifestyle. They definitely do not condone sinful lifestyles. Style must be differentiated from substance. Today’s evangelicals want to live out their lives “sold out” for Christ but they have the style of the post-modern culture. I think this is very Pauline, i.e., “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor.9:22, TNIV). As missional Christians, aren’t we all called to carry out the Great Commission?