January 3, 2006

Assumptions

Have you ever noticed that it’s always at the most inconvenient times that you seem to think of, at the time, the most important things? For example, you remember that you forgot to put away the milk about an hour into your ten-hour drive, or in my case, I start thinking of great things to write in the middle of the night while in a warm bed and my laptop is clear across the cold room on my desk.

I was thinking, late in the night, about the vast number of books that the emergent movement has put out on itself, autobiographies, if you will. So many versions of what the movement looks like, sounds like, feels like, and above all, how it’s nothing like the previous “contemporary Christianity” movement. I have this massive list of books on my reading list, most of them there because I wrote my 90-page thesis on the subject and was a bit exuberant with my reading purchases off of amazon. So I have all these books about “the emerging church” or “postmodernism” or “the emerging postmodernism” or whatever … and I’ve decided that I should, since I can’t return them, plow through them all before I leave for Australia.

As I read, I can’t help but notice that they really don’t seem say a whole lot. I mean, they say plenty, there are a lot of words on the pages, many of the books over 300 pages long, and yet … the funny part being that I mostly agree with the stuff they say. I wondered about that for the longest time – why is it that the emergent books all sound the same? – and last night the rather important conclusion became readily apparent at the time I had nothing to write it down with. I liken this to a man discovering the meaning of life at a time when he has sentient beings upon which to empower this knowledge – 42. Douglass Adams, eat your heart out.

At any rate, this is what I discovered: they all say variations on pretty much the same thing a lot of times in their books because it’s really not that complicated. Postmodernism – the way the world seems to be turning these days – is about religious disillusionment with the Christian church and about tolerance/pluralism. People are tired of the same old lies, promises of this that or the other thing, and would prefer to experience whatever promises the religious group offers before they write their check, thank you very much.

In response to this, the emerging church basically says that yep, scripture’s pretty great about this, because God loves everybody, and while He accepts them as they are, He beckons each person into a journey with Him towards Christ-likeness, to become someone far more than who they were before meeting God.
That’s the movement, in a nutshell. And it occurs to me that the reason that the books I have say this over and over and over again (making for somewhat tedious reading, but then again, I’ve learned the art of skimming) is that the movement is so different from its predecessor. People on both sides of the fence want the people on the other side to understand their point of view, to agree with them, and then damn it, to stop getting pissed at them and just follow the doctrine! The emergents write so much because the contemporaries have no clue what they’re saying, nor do they care to listen (it goes both ways, by the way).

How does this help me?

It guides me toward an answer. I’ve been struggling with the concept of language. What is language? If you think about it, it’s got nothing to do with the sounds that come out of our mouths (or from our hands, thanks to my ASL friends) when we try to express a concept; that’s just speech. Language is really the set of assumptions a person has about the world, often stemming (in part) from a person’s culture, how they were raised by their parents, and even their personality.

And it strikes me that, far from an ordinary disagreement of opinions, the emerging movement and its predecessor, the “contemporary” movement, really disagree at a more fundamental level, at that of language. So it’s not just that emergent writers can’t seem to say what they want to a contemporary writer because the one or the other is dense, it’s that they both speak, in essence, a completely different language because their inherent set of assumptions about the world are different from each other.

Got all that?

Ok, an example … um … got it. Our church is often labeled as a “seeker” church, part of the so-called “evangelistic” movement with a twist – the church strives to appeal to “seekers.” The focus is conversion – introduce as many people to Jesus and get them baptized. I won’t get into my opinions of this focus yet because the issue is this: I call a “seeker” something completely different from the church I attend. And this is the problem – when Crosswinds says they focus on “seekers”, they have a certain set of qualifications in mind behind that word. Their definition of the word “seeker” differs from my own (I tend to pitch my tent in the “emergent” camp). Since assumptions about the world drive the way a person approaches pretty much everything and their basic assumptions about the world include this definition, I can safely say that Crosswinds’ approach to evangelism tends to stem from how they define a seeker.

So what is a seeker, to an evangelistic contemporary church? In this particular church, a seeker is the equivalent of a non-Christian. Often enough, the focus of their evangelism is on the people that get dragged unwillingly to church by their crotchety yet insistent Aunt Matilda, hoping to get them to think “wow, this isn’t so bad, I could come here again” and thereby sort of wean a person into the idea of a relationship with Jesus.

However, inherent in their definition is an assumption: that every person seeks. If seeker = non-Christian, that means that every person must seek something. And unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that most people could care less about the truth of the universe, content with the idea that there can be lots of truths, your truth is yours and mine is mine and it’s ok if they don’t match. Relativism means that you don’t have to seek; you already believe the truth, and if you change your mind, that’s cool too because you still believe your truth. It’s foolproof.

Problem: if nobody is really seeking (and naturally there are always exceptions to this gross over-generalization), then how in the world can we expect to get through to them? Jesus said “seek and ye shall find” … so you won’t find anything if you’re not looking. And that also means that trying to attract people to church isn’t going to do much good; in order to evangelize, you have to get people to care.And that means getting to know them on a personal level. You have to, in essence, learn their language. You have to figure out their basic assumptions in life in order to truly communicate with them in a way they will understand. Until you’ve built a relationship with someone, you cannot hope to convince them of anything.

And that is a radical shift away from the way the modern contemporary evangelistic movement thinks. It means that a person just hearing about Jesus doesn’t cut it – they have to see and experience Jesus in their lives to make a difference. Just bringing someone to church isn’t going to work much anymore. Don't get lost in your own assumptions about who they are - you have to learn about them and love them and spend time with them first. It makes all the difference in the world.


Therefore, as God's chosen ones, holy and loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Put up with one another and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you also should forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which ties everything together in unity. [Colossians 3:12-14, ISV]

2 comments:

Greg said...

Hey Chris
I am catching up on blog reading and just got to read yours. Great stuff!

You said:
However, inherent in their definition is an assumption: that every person seeks. If seeker = non-Christian, that means that every person must seek something. And unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that most people could care less about the truth of the universe, content with the idea that there can be lots of truths, your truth is yours and mine is mine and it’s ok if they don’t match.

Dude, right on. That's totally true. Even for Christians perhaps. It's not all about head knowledge or Bible facts. Learn this, and you're in. It's so totally about the relationships we have with people, and living life together following Jesus. And if someone does not yet know to follow Jesus, then we might be used by God to help them see him.

It's all very cool.

Nice blog. :-)

Sarah said...

Very interesting, Chris. However, I have a request. Make your text bigger? it's hard to read white on black in that small a text...