Friday, April 24, 2009

How I Stopped Hating Church

So I am in a stretch where I am preaching 3 times in 6 weeks. That sort of production definitely taps out my ability to generate blog content. The manuscripts have started showing up on my preaching site I actually think last weeks (on the road to Emmaus) was my second best of the year[1]. I have also started recording them actually:  Until then, it is back to the file[2].

This may be my favorite piece I have written in the last three years. It is not particularly well written and it is kind of shortish. But it is my favorite because the insights have so totally revolutionized the way I do life and church.

How I Stopped Hating Church

Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz peaked near the middle with a sneakily profound chapter called “Confessional,” which reduced me to tears in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. He followed this with a chapter called “How I Stopped Hating Church.” I was practically giddy. Enjoying Christians is something I have struggled with for some time and Miller had proved himself an insightful guy and able story teller. Unfortunately, the chapter sucked. He stopped hating church by finding an Emerging church made up of a bunch of people like him.

So I’ll give Don a mulligan on that and try to take up the topic myself. My unfinished pilgrimage to the place of no longer hating church started about nine years ago. We moved from Madison to Buffalo. When in Madison we attended Blackhawk Evangelical Free Church, a fantastic, evangelical, Midwestern (read white) church in a college town. But I was beginning to feel the postmodern angst that has plagued evangelical X’ers across the movement. We were looking for something ‘real’ and decided we’d find it in a small, predominately African American church on the edge of the Buffalo’s east side. It was gritty. It was hard. It was beautiful. We were very conscious of our place as cultural learners and when something happened that we thought was strange we were more likely to think we just didn’t understand. We embraced the experience as stepping into the worship life of another culture and being willing to receive from that culture.

Then we moved to California. We were tired. Running a ghetto youth ministry had been hard on us and hard on our marriage. We ended up at a large, affluent, white, boomer church in a college suburb that was everything Refreshing Springs wasn’t. And it didn’t take long for me to get angsty. The worship and life of the church just didn’t seem transcendent. I was again, looking for something ‘real’.

But then it occurred to me, the black church was not more real or transcendent, but we embraced it as the particular worship of a cultural group that we could learn from. The suburban white church was similarly, the particular worship of a specific cultural group that (gasp) I might actually be able to learn from.

I decide to embrace our new worship service as the particular expression of faith in a unique cultural group, suburban, middle age, yuppies. I no longer expect them to bear the weight of ‘authentic’ ‘real[3]’ or ‘biblical[4]’ worship. I simply enter into suburban yuppie worship as if I was it was some strange foreign culture that I was trying to understand. I sing the Michael Boltonesque[5] prom songs to God in solidarity with these strange people. I clap woodenly on the beat as if it was as foreign to me as the syncopation of Refreshing Springs was the first time I went. Churches made of people can only be expected to reflect a glimmer of the glories of God and are each particular expressions of the work of the gospel in a unique culture. I have chosen to embrace the worship practices of this odd people I find so foreign for this season. That is how I stopped hating church.

[1] It was definitely the funniest. Though, you would not get the jokes by listening to the MP3. They were mostly visual gags. A couple nights later, I was watching the Daily Show and realized that my propensity for sprinkling my talk with visual gags that I don’t explicitly acknowledge except for pausing for response (and maybe a deconstructing follow up joke) is directly influenced by Stewart.
[2] In his book Now I Can Die in Peace Bill Simmons republished his outstanding columns from the Red Sox first title run. To get those of us who read them in real time to buy the book, he added copious footnotes and backward looking reflections. I have kind of done the same thing here. The text is a historical artifact. The footnotes are contemporary reflection.
[3] When we were younger, we expected ‘real’ to be ‘uniquely transcendent.’ But I have come to believe that ‘spiritual reality’ can only be ‘culturally particular.’ We are just less likely to recognize this in the culture we grew up in, since, for most of our early life, we though this culture WAS transcendent...and have trouble subsequently embracing it as particular.
[4] I generally think ecclesiology is almost entirely arbitrary. Apart from some guidelines on leadership structures (e.g. leadership must be done in community) there is very little ‘how to’ instructions for church in the Scriptures. I actually think this intentional. The scriptures prescribe freedom. Worship is a fundamentally cultural response to the transcendent creator. So, Ed Stezer says, ‘God is reaching Korea with the mega-church and China with the house church.’ Anyone who tries to prescribe THE model for church probably needs to study Acts again…or grow up.
[5] Ref: Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformissional Pastor


Rebecca said...

Hey Stan! I would love to hear your thoughts about the emergent church movement. Have you blogged about that before? Ethan read a Donald Miller book a few summers ago. He didn't think I would like it though. We've been working our way through Brian McLaren's series, and have really been moved by things he has written.

You with us said...

I love this piece. It is good for me to read it again as I am starting to get antsy (again) in our church.

Wait a can clap in church?

Bronwyn said...

"Michael Boltonesque prom songs to God..."

Absolutely priceless!

stanford said...

Hi Rebecca,

Whew, that is actually a really complex question because the movement is so fragmented, but I have been deeply influence by the Emerging sensibility and most of the personalities. We spent most of last year contemplating a church plant in downtown Sacramento that would have had a very emerging feel. Mostly, though, I have been consumed by an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for my generation in light of a boomer church that simply does not seem interested in understanding or reaching xers or millenials. I have found most of the people thinking about that kind of thing are under some sort of 'emerging church' banner or something like it.

I mostly identify with the Miller/Mark Driscoll/Dan Kimball (and Tim Keller, who they affectionately call their 'yoda' and rightly so) branch of the movement these days...people who describe themselves as theologically orthodox but culturally liberal and are serious about contextualizing the gospel to the postmodern milieu...but hold the historical line on our least popular doctrines.

Regarding McLaren: I loved 'New Kind of Christian' and thought 'Generous Orthodoxy' was pretty bad....and that is a pretty good summary of how I relate to him. My brother once said something like, 'no one says 60% of what he says better than he does...but I wish he was more careful with the other 40%.' I guess I generally think that he is better at diagnosing the problem (and, for that, there is almost none better) than prescribing a solution. But I have also found much of what he has written moving, insightful and motivating and generally enjoy his work. I consider him an ally.

One of the interesting things about the movement is that according to Gibbs and Bolger (who have written the best academic work about the movement) some of the most intriguing instances of emerging churches are actually in England. I have been wondering how your church experience has been and if you have seen Emerging influences on the island.



I forgot that you are one of the dozen or so people who have actually read 'the file.' Those of us in casual boomer churches long for more austerity. Those of us in more traditional churches long for a pulse.


And that isn't even Driscoll's best line in the book. Pages 59 and 60 are uproarious...though oddly over the propriety line for me to post...which is a first.

stephy said...

Hi Stanford,
Thanks for your thoughtful takes on everything. For what it's worth, here is a site for people who have suffered marked abuse at Mark Driscoll's church. I know several of them and have been in counseling groups with some. Anyway, the site might be worth looking at for anyone who is interested in Mark Driscoll's church model, the resurgence thing, etc.

stanford said...

Hi Stephy,

Thanks for stopping by. You can imagine my embarrassment admitting to reading Blue Like Jazz in a coffee shop. :)

I hesitate to write anything in response really. Your comment obviously comes from a very deeply felt place and I suspect any response by me would be trite...yet, it seems, I do not have the strength of character to refrain.

I am certainly not surprised that Mark et al would be capable of doing that kind of damage. When damaged people try to care for damaged people...some people get badly damaged. (That turns out to be a pretty substantial cog of my ecclesiology). But I wouldn't be surprised if the effects are magnified by the shear size and experimental nature of MHC...and I'm sure that Mark's personal style doesn't help on this count. And, some of the gender role stuff that comes out of MHC (which seems to be at the heart of much of your friend's critique) is pretty silly eisagesis. I am really saddened that it went catastrophically poorly for your friend and others. And I do not know how the leadership really works at MHC, so it could be particularly broken in ways I do not understand.

I will say, though, that I have found Mark and the whole Resurgence thing really helpful and life giving from a distance and am extremely encouraged that many in the spiritual waste land that is my demographic seem to have found it to be proximally helpful as well. One of the things I love about the Christian world view (that I think often gets forgotten in the blogosphere) is that our flaws, even if considerable, do not render us valueless. And I have found much of value coming out of MHC.

stephy said...

Hey Stanford,

Have you read "People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil" by M. Scott Peck? That book has been very instrumental for me on my journey of recovering from spiritual abuse.