In my post The Shifting Church, Part 1, I discussed where we and the church are now. Specifically, I opined on the state of churches and asked some questions to get us thinking critically. Based on shared statistics, I conclude that churches are not connecting like they should.
A good, long look in the mirror seems in order. If we are unwilling to do that, then any new strategy might be like reaching for a bandaid when stitches are really what we need. (Um…why are my metaphors so violent? Sorry. Here’s to hoping the future of the church is peaceful.)
Ok, bear with me as I share a longer post this time. I believe we will find it thought-provoking and integral to our discussion on the subject.
Where We Are Coming From
Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence, explains that, through its history, the church has experienced a major shift every five hundred years. A thousand years ago was the beginning of the Great Schism, the split that led to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Then on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther inadvertently started the Great Reformation. Even though other dramatic developments have taken place within the last five hundred years— including the Restoration Movement that led to Churches of Christ—authors such as Tickle agree that the five hundred year mark is significant.
What “great” shift, then, is upon us today?
According to Tickle, those who could, at one time, be firmly found in one of four categories, or quadrants, of Christians--Conservative, Renewalist, Liturgical, and Social-justice—are moving away from their traditional polarities and convening near the center as they search for authentic faith and practice. Even secular religion historian Stephen Prothero says, “Christians identify less and less each year with labels of this sort" (God is Not One, p. 82).
Have you ever dropped a quarter onto one of those colorful donation boxes in the center of the mall and watched as the coin slowly looped around the plastic vortex toward the hole at the bottom? Many Christians, like coins, seem to be circling through the four quadrants, borrowing from one another’s traditions and perspectives, and becoming what Tickle labels “The Great Emergence.”
My Journey Through the Quadrants
Come to think of it, this is a pretty accurate description of my journey. Growing up in churches of Christ, I remember being drawn toward a desire for the experiential in ways that our tradition had mostly neglected. This was more than just teenage excitement in response to youth group
highlights. I overheard talk about the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. I watched as some found cause to introduce demonstrative forms of worship as their personal expression. We may have not know it, but we were leaning into and borrowing from Renewalists, such as
the Assemblies of God.
Later when I was in college, I was introduced to the deep mysteries and traditions of liturgical churches. I was not alone in my curiosity; there was a sudden collective interest in the church calendar, uses of lectionary readings, and contemplative postures from ancient mystics. A few years later, a friend and I were reading and discussing The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. We began to judge faith by its concern for the least of these and were suddenly attuned to social justice.
This journey produced in me an appreciation for the many forms of Christianity. At the same time, it required that I let go of the unnecessary trepidation of becoming like “those” Christians —whomever “they” were. Over time, I grew in my faith as I found a wide variety of expressions
that helped me discover an authentic and diverse set of practices for my personal development.
I’m not the same as I was back then. And I’m glad for it.
All of this discussion might send shivers up spines as some fear losing a particular distinction or heritage. Some might even suspect, based on my coin metaphor, that such a movement leads Christianity (or at least our wandering sons and daughters) to fall through the center and out of sight completely.
My bad. There is no drain; there is no hole in the vortex that threatens our existence. Sorry for the confusion.
Tickle proposes that this flow will draw some out of their quadrant and into one of four “currents" around the center, as you can see in the graphic above.
Approaches to Repairing and Restoring
Tickle uses the following metaphor to further desribe distinctions within Christiantity.
Imagine that you’ve recently inherited an old farm house that has been in your family for generations. You have a strong connection to this homestead, even if the years of wear and tear show its missing luster. Now it belongs to your generation. It is up to you to decide what to do with the house. And let’s assume that you have already resolved it would be a shame to just sell the property to a stranger who doesn’t know the meaning held within.
How would you approach this home?
Some may be fine to dust off the cobwebs and shake out the rugs. They won’t find any need to get new furniture or change much of anything. Their grandparents’ old couch and bed will suffice after a little cleaning and repair. For them, it will bring great joy to know that they are living just the way that their family always has. It will be sweet to hear the floorboards creak like they would have under Grandpa’s footsteps. They will rest easy in Grandma’s chair out on the porch. Sure, they’ll have to learn how to use the old wood burning stove to heat the house, but they will feel a great honor in doing so every time.
Others will say that the furniture is beyond repair . . . and so are some parts of the house. They believe there is something about this century old home that could shine again with a little effort. They will set out to restore it, refurbishing the floors (fixing the creaks), repairing missing baseboards and hardware. They will even update the wiring and the HVAC to bring in some modern comforts. However, the goal is not to notice major changes. They want to work hard to make the old feel like new again.
Then there are those who will say moving a wall or two, adding a much needed second bathroom, or modernizing the kitchen will not change the connection one has with the original place. In fact, they might even argue the changes are the only thing making the house livable in this modern age. They suppose, “Grandma and Grandpa would have done the same if they
were still alive.” This family concludes that it would be silly not to swap out drafty windows and install modern appliances. In no way does even the most drastic updates jeopardize any connection they hold with the past.
Finally, there will be others that maintain great fondness with the homestead even when the original house is gone completely. They may argue that the view from the house or the land it sat on is the real heritage worth building upon. Now, in the process of tearing down the old house and building a modern place to live, these thoughtful folks may designate mementos from the old to feature in the new. They may save a section of the flooring where Grandma used to stand in the kitchen to hang prominently on the wall. Maybe they’ll keep that old bench that used to live by the back door where Grandpa would sit and take off his muddy work boots every evening. For them, the memories will live on and the connection to the past will remain long after the physical features are replaced.
Or option five.
I really don’t think there is a wrong answer here. I might argue that we need all of these systems to address the homestead, or the church, of the future. Any of these approaches, done with authenticity and intentionality, can be an option worth the effort. And yet, can we also appreciate and honor the journey of others who arrive at different decisions from us?
Our opportunity here is to foster a positive landscape, fertile for producing unique takes and fresh approaches while avoiding drawing boundary lines of distinction and alienating the brave.
Remember: even if we’re in a different current, we’re all swimming in the same water.