Emerging Church

The Best Week Ever, or What to Say When You Meet Your Heroes

Last week was one that I will not soon forget. I had to be in California for work, which normally means that my coworker and I will try to catch a baseball game. This time, though, we decided to get tickets to see Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, Conan tapes his show in the afternoon, and there was no way we’d make it in time from the home office to LA to use our tickets. I was sorely disappointed. Until I saw someone post on Facebook about Rob Bell doing an event from the Viper Room in West Hollywood. No to baseball. No to Conan. Yes to Rob Bell.

We got to the Viper Room and spent some time laughing at all the guys who looked like us – slightly chubby with trendy glasses. It was like we had come home. Right at 7pm, Rob took the stage. He spoke for over an hour and then answered questions. Mine was the last one of the evening. You can watch the video of Still Painting here. After he got done speaking, Rob hung out and talked to people, including me and my friends. I told him about how we give away Velvet Elvis on our church website, and I told him that he was one of the patron saints of our church community. I asked him to come and speak at Vintage sometime. We’ll see if we can make that happen. He was funny and gracious, and I hope it’s not the last time I get to interact with him.

Rob is a controversial guy. No one denies his unbelievable talent as a communicator. He is enrapturing when he speaks. His books are conversation and engaging. His videos – Vanessa calls them a cross between a sermon and music video – are mesmerizing. But Rob is quite polarizing. His book, Love Wins, got him labeled a heretic by many. My posts about Love Wins are among the most trafficked on this little blog. People either love or hate Rob.

I am in the love category. Rob, through his work at Mars Hill Bible Church, has helped me to see how a church can create an environment in which people can bring their doubts and questions. He has modeled a way and thereby helped me to be a better practitioner of the kind of faith that is less focused on the theological arguments of the past and more engaged in helping people to wrestle with the questions of today. Short of Butterfly Theology‘s arrival on the scene, no book has better summed up the kind of church Vintage is trying to be than Velvet Elvis. I am who I am as a pastor and Vintage is what it is as a church because of Rob Bell.

I was on a bit of a high on Wednesday and Thursday, pumped up and excited about having spent just a couple of minutes with Rob. Thursday began with the mixed feelings of excitement that I would head home at the end of the day but also dread that I would be on a red-eye all night before finally making it back to Arkansas on Friday morning. I got through the day and boarded the plane at 10:30 pm PT with the realization that I was not getting upgraded to first class, which meant that I would spend the next several hours cramped in coach and probably unable to sleep. I was texting Vanessa about my complaints when Brian McLaren walked down the aisle of the plane.

Brian McLaren is kind of the godfather of the emergent church. He’s the author of many books. He is not as well-known as Rob Bell, but he is equally as controversial. He has set forth a roadmap whereby the church can leave behind its intertwinedness with modernity and engage more fully with postmodernity. In Brian’s case, this has meant an embracing of interfaith dialog and science, and it has led him to positions on hell, homosexuality, and politics that make him not-so-popular with evangelicals.

But I love him. When I was going through a deep crisis of faith, it was Brian’s book A New Kind of Christian that saved me. Without Brian, I doubt I would have left fundamentalism. Without Brian, I think my faith would have died rather than emerged. Without Brian, Vintage Fellowship would not exist. Without Brian, Butterfly Theology would be a very short book. He is my hero. And he too is a patron saint of Vintage.

And he was sitting three rows behind me on the plane. When there was a lull in the passengers boarding, I went back to talk to him. I asked the guy sitting next to him if we could change seats so that I could talk with Brian. Brian suggested we talk when we got to Atlanta. That was a better idea than me chattering away while Brian tried to sleep on the red-eye. I returned to my seat and had a hard time getting to sleep.

When we arrived in Atlanta, Brian and I connected in the terminal and headed to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast. We spent over an hour talking about a whole host of things. We talked about the future of the emergent church and seminaries and how to respond to critics and how Vanessa’s theological transformation mirrored my own and mutual friends. Brian could not have been more gracious to me. He listened and asked questions and wanted to know my story. He offered me counsel and affirmed me in my journey. I felt the same way about meeting him as I did about Rob – I certainly hope this is not the last time our paths cross.

I hope that Brian is a words-of-affirmation guy because I showered him with them. Thinking of how much they have impacted me, I wanted to just yell titles of his books at him – GENEROUS ORTHODOXY!!  THE STORY WE FIND OURSELVES IN!!  THE LAST WORD AND THE WORD AFTER THAT!!  A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY!!  But I was able to restrain myself. I did tell him that in a very real and literal way, he had saved my faith. I told him that he had been my mentor ever since I left fundamentalism. I told him that I had learned to have an irenic spirit from him. We talked about me sending him a copy of Butterfly Theology and how we could get him to Vintage to speak to our community. My fingers are crossed.

In the last ten years, two people have impacted my life, my thinking, my ministry, and my theology more than any others. Those two people are Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. They are my heroes. In the span of four days, I met both of them.

I fully expect to meet Bono any day now.


Emergence: A Year in Review

One of my favorite parts of this time of year is all the “year-in-review” articles and stories. Here is one by Jonathan Brink about what the Emergent Church was up to in 2010. It’s honest and hopeful. I especially enjoyed this paragraph:

The emerging church isn’t dead. It’s just finally wrestled with the angel and won. It’s shedding it old image, the one that got people so riled up in the first place. The conversations won’t ever go away because in the end, we’re looking for what it means to be human. We’re looking to discover the reality that Jesus was trying to present, one of infinite grace and beauty, stark reality of the kingdom of God in our midst, and a renewed sense of possibility for the restoration of the world.


A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren

*originally posted on February 19, 2010

Brian McLaren has done it again.

When I read A New Kind of Christian trilogy several years ago, I was in the midst of a spiritual and emotional depression. I was, in McLaren’s words, “between something real and something wrong.” I had begun to question a lot of what I had been taught, a lot of what I preached, a lot of what gave me identity as a Christian and as a pastor. And I knew that if I expressed my questions and doubts, it would cost me my job. A New Kind of Christian gave me the courage to step out and journey onto some terra nova, leading eventually to the launching of Vintage Fellowship, the emergent faith community I have the inexpressible privilege of shepherding.

For me, Brian McLaren’s books are like a turn-by-turn GPS, always one step ahead of me, guiding the way. In the same way that A New Kind of Christian charted the path I would journey, so now, I believe A New Kind of Christianity will chart the path that Vintage Fellowship is journeying.

A New Kind of Christianity has framed the ongoing discussion our faith community is having. It’s like Brian has been having coffee with us. He asks 10 essential questions:
-What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?
-How should the Bible be understood?
-Is God Violent?
-Who is Jesus and why is he important?
-What is the gospel?
-What do we do about the church?
-Can we find a way to address human sexuality?
-Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
-How should the followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
-How can we translate our quest into action?

McLaren engages each question thoughtfully, opening up a space for discussion, dissent, and development. I am sure my fundamentalist friends will not be OK with his questions, let alone his proposed answers. But I am no longer a fundamentalist, and I love the space to explore and wonder. Many times throughout the book, I felt affirmed, reading a perspective on a question that I shared. Many more times, I was challenged to look at a question from a new perspective. And what a blessing that space is.

As tremendously important as McLaren’s framing of the quest for a new kind of Christianity is, maybe his most important contribution to the discussion is his gracious and gentle manner. He describes some of the reaction his teaching has engendered. And he responds to some of his critics. He could have reason to come on strongly, defensively, and argumentatively. He never does. He maintains the kind of irenic spirit that I think makes God proud. I hope that I can emulate it.

Constantly searching for metaphors to help map the territory ahead, McLaren describes the maturation process of humanity in general and religious thought in particular in terms of the colors of the spectrum. As I read his description of the movement from red to yellow through green and blue to violet, it was as if I was reading my own story. In short, reading A New Kind of Christian and launching Vintage Fellowship was my journey into the indigo shade of honesty. But I am ready to move beyond honesty to peace. I am ready to continue my quest. I am not confident of much, but I am confident of this: A New Kind of Christianity will be a map I return to again and again as I seek to lead myself, my family, and my church into the violet horizon of a hopeful, peaceful future.

Thanks, Brian, for doing it again.

A New Kind of Church

For too long the Church has been seen as an oasis in the desert – offering water to those who are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of Western capitalism. It is in this desert, as we wander together as nomads, that God can be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.

– Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God

Emerging Politics

For a long time, I have been reassessing my political beliefs. Aaron challenged me a while back to develop a political approach that mirrored the emerging church. My reassessing predates that challenge, but ever since that challenge, it has been running around in my head more frequently. Additionally, the results (so far) of the 2008 political campaign have given me a chance to reassess things since I am for the first time in my life an “undecided.” I thought originally that I would wait until I had some answers to share before I blogged about it, but I have decided instead to start a conversation. So, I’m going to just start talking about what I’m thinking about without any answers in sight. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

About 5-6 years ago, I went through a process of reassessing my theological beliefs, which ultimately led to the existence of Vintage Fellowship. That was an interesting process for me because I feel like it led me to a very unusual place, like a theologian without a home. Much of what I grew up with and was taught in college or wrote in my ordination paper, I continue to affirm. As has been documented here, for instance, I remain a Calvinist, needing to believe in a big God. But other things have been abandoned. For instance, I am no longer a Baptist. Additionally, I have adopted an approach to theology that is far less certain and, in my estimation, far more humble and hopeful. I don’t claim to know all the answers. I try not to demonize those who disagree with me. And I am willing to ask a lot of questions, even questions about things that others in my more theologically conservative past would deem unquestionable.

Politically speaking, I think I am moving in a similar direction. Like I am skeptical of the ecclesiastical structures of the established church (I really like the term “postdenominational”), so too, I am skeptical of the partisan structures of the political establishment (“postpartisan”?). While I remain a Conservative, needing to believe in a small government, I am questioning whether I will remain a Republican. I have come to reject the certitude of the God-and-Country patriotism of the Religious Right. I am also refusing to demonize those who have a different political philosophy than me. And … I am asking myself a lot of questions, questions that I will post in an upcoming blog entry.

Ultimately, I think I can say with some degree of confidence that this political evolution on my part is initially one of attitude. (This is similar, again, to the theological process I went through). The evolution of particular beliefs and approaches will come in time as fruit of a more humble, more honest, and more hopeful perspective.

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