Is There Anything New Under The Sun?

A few weeks ago, my colleague and I were invited to a ‘mainline’ church to speak as part of an adult forum series on new things happening in the church.

Our little church, Mercy Seat, has been placed under the banner of emergent, although we never intentionally positioned ourselves to be anything other than a mission church, always a part of the larger church. So, it always strikes me as a bit funny that we’re considered something new when all we want to do is point, like John the Baptist, to the very same Christ mainlines have always been pointing.

One can argue, with all the supporting statistical documentation that something is happening in North American churches these days. The mainlines are dying, their numbers dropping and most of us can agree that hope for the future might be in adult conversion. Also, mega-churches are growing and the evangelical right wing of the church is making its voice heard in everything from the pew to politics. The church is manifesting in all sorts of new ways, and whatever emergent is, it is only one expression of church these days.

What struck me as we spoke to this group of wonderful, kind, and faithful people is the passion they have for the church and their faith. What broke my heart is their suspicion of us. I wanted to say, and did try to say, is all we’re doing is what they’re doing, we’re nothing new, all we want to do is pass on the faith we’ve been given by our parents’ and grandparents’; a faith we treasure and a tradition we love.

But frankly, it seems to me that there are marketers out there telling good and hard-working pastors that they need to be more relevant, more real, more relational, more authentic when the irony is, that’s what they have been their whole careers. They have guided all kinds of folks through baptisms and children’s education, through confirmation programs and weddings, through life crises and funerals. They have done tremendous work, and yes, they may not be heavily tattooed or snowboard but they could not be more relevant to who their people are, more real in their dealings with them, more relational in their interactions, more authentic in their beings.

Have the mainlines done anything wrong? I don’t think so. Every pastor I know who leads a mainline denomination couldn’t do more than what they’re doing. And often, they face church cultures resistant to change, a “Hey Pastor, we’ve never done it that way before!” mentality, which makes it difficult for them to enact what their churches could be.

Certainly, there are changes in culture and the church needs to be cognizant and sensitive to these changes. But, what cannot change — whatever kind of music one draws upon, whatever the expression of the faith, whatever style preferred prayer style — we cannot, as a body, stop pointing to Christ, this God who entered this world, our world, and taught us what it means to live as his disciples. Who, overcame sin, death, and even the devil in the cross and resurrection. Who’s Holy Spirit lives with us now, where we live as if this is real, as if grace precedes us and everything has been already forgiven and redeemed.

Of course, my fear is that people will give in to gimmicks. They see what is happening in the emergent churches and they think they must get tattoos or learn to skateboard or replace the altar with a drum set. Or, I fear that preaching the beautiful and difficult Word found in our bibles will be lost, that it is no longer a Word that breaks us open, calls us to die, and then makes us anew. And so, we start to rely on puppets or object lessons or political statements (right or left) to replace the gospel.

My fear is that God’s Word to us either becomes feel-good sentimentality or merely moralistic. Whatever we do, whatever we look like, we are ultimately a people called to be gathered around Word and Sacrament. We are only made new through Christ. Christ has given us all things: life here and now, and also forever. And, in return, he doesn’t ask us to be trendy, but bless his heart, asks only for our wounds, our sins, our scraps and blesses all of our fumbling intentions to be Church together.