Wednesday, July 25, 2007

taking a train to church

One of the things I love about the connections created by blooging is the chance to take part in, or at least listen in on, conversations I might otherwise miss. And, once again, it also means there is more to learn. One of the words I read a lot, in relation to conversations on the church, is emergent, which, I confess, I’m still trying to understand. Since moving out of Southern Baptist life and into the United Church of Christ over fifteen years ago, I’ve lost track of much of what was being discussed in evangelical life mostly because I was so discouraged by watching Baptists beating up on themselves and so encouraged by the new home I found in the UCC that I just didn’t listen. Writing this blog and reading others has reconnected me to some of that conversation as well as finding out about some of the others taking place in and between other denominations.

And I keep hearing the word emergent, alongside of words like organic and evolutionary. I resonate with the desire to see the church be vibrant, essential, and effective in our world and I struggle, some, with what I read as I try to understand. In all the talk about emergent I have listened to, one of the things I hear underneath (whether it’s being said or not) is that churches like mine don’t measure up somehow because we aren’t “emerging.” I feel a little bit like Jefe in this exchange with El Guapo, his leader, from the movie Three Amigos:

JEFE: I have put many beautiful piƱatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.

EL GUAPO: Many pinatas?

JEFE: Oh, yes, many.

EL GUAPO: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?

JEFE: A what?

EL GUAPO: A plethora.

JEFE: Oh, yes, you have a plethora.

EL GUAPO: Jefe, what is a "plethora"?

JEFE: Why?

EL GUAPO: You told me I have a plethora and I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora and find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.

JEFE: Forgive me, El Guapo.
As I was Bloglining this morning, I came across this quote on Randy’s blog (where he was quoting this guy who was reviewing a book by this guy):
If the people who built the railroads in the United States were actually interested in transporting people, they would now own the airlines.
What I hear when I read those words is the railroads are antiques at best and useless at worst. If I translate the metaphor to apply to the church, which it was intended to do, I go to a railroad church that doesn’t get it and has lived out it’s usefulness. We need to learn how to fly if we expect God to do anything in and with us. While we’re looking out the windows of the train, faith is flying overhead.

If we’re going to talk about organic churches, I go to one. My little church began as a neighborhood church in 1735, breaking off from the First Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts (as in First Church, Pilgrims, you get the idea) because they wanted to worship closer to home. From it’s birth it was a community church and it has remained true to that vision. It’s never been a big church, but the community has never been big either. We’re too comfortable being a community church and have a hard time when we talk about growing, and we are church in the truest sense. Maybe the fact that the Northeast is one of the few areas in this country where the trains still play an important role in our transportation is not for nothing.

The problem with the train-plane analogy for me is I don’t think the church has to choose to be one or the other. If you were to drop our church into the middle of Boston or any other big city, we would neither survive nor minister effectively because we would not be an organic expression of faith in those places, just as an edgy, postmodern, urban fellowship would not draw a crowd in our little town for very long. Both expressions of faith and community, along with a plethora of others, are needed if we are going to give voice to the many dimensions of God’s love and grace. I can’t ride the train from here to Singapore and I would be stupid to try and fly the fifteen miles from my house to Quincy. To borrow from another Steve Martin movie, perhaps we would do well to think of planes, trains, and automobiles.

The first place I read the word emerging in relation to the church was in Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity, where he talked about the church in North America having both an existing paradigm and an emerging paradigm. He was clear to say from the beginning that he was not trying to create a dichotomy as much as describe these two genuine expressions of faith as it gets lived out in the church existing alongside of each other. Though his take on the emerging paradigm is not the same as the current emergent movement, his point is still valid. It’s hard to build a community of faith when the founding vision is “at least we’re not those guys.”

One of the other blog conversations I listen in on centers around eating locally grown food as much as possible. One new word I’ve learned is locivore, as in one who eats locally. I wonder if it, too, might be helpful as an ecclesiological metaphor. One thing I do hear in the emergent emphasis on an organic church. For all that can come out of worldwide connections, the power of the church to live out its faith happens locally. The creative paradox of our calling is we will change the world by meeting the needs in front of our face.

I’ll give you a specific example. I think our church would be transformed if we did two small things: moved all our committee meetings to one night of the month and allowed people to serve on only one committee. Those changes would mean we would either involve more people and/or let go of the stuff that no one feels called to do, and create time when we could get together for discipleship and fellowship. Right now, we get together for worship and committee meetings; there’s no time for anything else. If we created the space and time to be together, we would change ourselves, deepen our commitment to Christ and to one another, and have room to dream about how we can reach out to love our community and our world. It would be an organic and evolutionary move.

Would that make us emergent?

Peace,
Milton

10 comments:

Tess said...

I think you're right about the need to create fellowship by not getting bogged down in committees and maybe you would then be 'emerging'. (I can't quite get my head around what emerging means, either.)
But do the labels matter? And how about walking as another strand to the analogy?
I love "locivore", by the way.

don't eat alone said...

Tess

Your comment makes me think of the Oleta Adams song: "I don't care how you get here, get here if you can."

Peace,
Milton

Olivia said...

Hi, Milton,

A refreshing book you might like is Jake Colson's "So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore". It's changed my idea of what church can/could be. I do not attend a church, but now would if I could find a small local friendly church like yours or nakedpastor's or like those in the book. Maybe I will, someday.

Great post,

Olivia

anj said...

Milton - You have a knack for quoting my favorite songs or bits of movies. My sons and I quote this bit from Three Amigos often - I think we probably quote it when we feel a bit like Jefe too. When we lived in Australia, we were part of an emerging church community, that was Anglican, and home grown, and organic. The changing liturgies grew out of who the people were, and where we were in our spiritual journeys. When we moved back to the US, nothing felt like home, until we walked into the silence of Quaker meeting, sit down on the old and uncomfortable benches, and I knew within a few minutes I had come home. Again and this time, for good. I am glad that you have found a faith home that is true for you. I am saddened that it seemed as if your faith community was being thought of as less than. And personally, the train is my favorite way to travel, There is time for my heart and spirit to catch up with my body on a train. If Emergent is used as a label, instead of a heart journey, how much truth is there in that?

don't eat alone said...

Olivia,

Thanks for the tip on the book. Here's hoping you find a community of faith.

Anj,

I'm always moved by the way you speak from your heart, both here and on your blog. I think there is something to traveling where mind, body, and heart can stay integrated. We need to add that to our travel metaphor.

Peace,
Milton

Kester said...

Funny where blog-world takes you... lovely to stop by here and read some great stuff ;-)

Just as a note about the train-plane analogy Randy quotes Scot quoting from my book... Actually, in context in the book I think you'd find I totally agree with you. Your local, organic church, totally suited to its particular environment is absolutely right. The point I was making in the book was that we too often lose sight of the goal once we've settled ourselves in the particularities of our first attempts to reach that goal.

Beyond the metaphoric, I'd take the train any time above the cattle-truck horror that is modern air travel!

Peace,

K

alan said...

Milton,

First, let me say I've been enjoying your blog for some time. This is my first time commenting.

I also grew up and went to seminary a Baptist, and now I worship in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) church.

Although emerging seems to have come from the evangelical side, there are many mainliners who are also speaking to this change occuring. Two prominent ones are Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle. There is a lot of focus in this new way of doing things on the context of place, so I would say your thought about your church is right on target.

I enjoy jesuscreed, but starting where you did is like coming into the middle of an ongoing conversation. A beginning that was helpful for me,as it seems to be for many others, were books by Brian McLaren. I recommend them to you.

I encourage you to continue in the emerging conversation. If you do, I look forward to seeing this line of thought develop on your blog.

Thanks so much for your writing!

don't eat alone said...

Kester and Alan

Thanks for your words. I do realize I'm joining the middle of a conversation and that I was responding to a quote taken by someone from a review by another of your book, Kester. I do look forward to reading it. What pleases me most about today is making contact with folks like you and expanding my sense of who I'm traveling with on this journey of faith.

Peace,
Milton

gander said...

I prefer to travel by boat. :)

Your comments on when committees should meet are intriguing. Committees tend to meet at the convenience of their members. The best time for one team is not necessarily the best time for another. A regular time for fellowship and discipleship first might then motivate teams to hold their meetings then. Maybe it's a chicken-egg thing.

In any event, thank you for the insights!

PS - why do we have "word verification" here?

Karyn said...

http://timconder.typepad.com/

Hey Milton,

That's the link to a friend of mines church blog. I think you'd find him very interesting.

Peace,
Karyn