During the final session of the Re-Emergent conference in Belfast last week, an attending Sociologist from America tossed out a question that had arisen out of the conversations he had been having with different ones of us. It was a question of motive, or rather propulsion: Were those of us who are setting sail for new shores, experimenting with new forms, daring the rapids of a new theology, and willing to take only the most portable and flexible of “tents and gear” with us... were we being “pushed out or called out” of the community of believers we once belonged to? Are we following an Abrahamic call into a new country? Or are we fleeing for our lives, dwelling in caves and among the heathen, as when David fled from Saul? Are we Emergents stomping off in a huff, because they didn’t play our song at the party? Or do we really hear the call of the wild to venture into the unknown terrain of the next great era? I must have caught the question as it went out into the room, because I took it with me to the Dublin Airport in the wee hours on Friday: “Am I a starless Sneetch who got thrown out of the Frankfurter party?”
With enough coffee in my system I am able to turn my attention toward this question in the hour or so I have before I board my flight back to Germany. My answer is clear as a bell: both /and & neither/ nor! What is at work in me, a calling to or vision for what could be, is clashing with the construct of church as it has existed throughout the modern era. I am not being pushed out of a system that I actually want to be a part of, a sneetch moping along the beech and jumping at the first chance to let McMonkey McBean paste a star on my belly. Rather, I simply could not ignore the signs and sounds of a faulty transmission. The cogs of the gears of church are not meshing smoothly along, but are jamming up making a painfully loud and irritating grating noise.
When I was about 13 I flew down to Miami during spring break to meet my dad who had sailed down to Florida on our Dutch sloop. He was there with his momentary motorcycle chick girlfriend and the three of us drove back to DC with her BMW bike and his 1969 blue VW bus (you know, the one with the oval windows at the top along the sides?). I got to switch up between the two. The bus made it until Richmond, Virginia and then the clutch gave out. A credit to VW, we drove the whole last two hours without it! All was well as long as we were on the highway, but every time we had to down shift, things got ugly. A grating gearshift is easily one of the most irksome sounds there are, right up there with fingernails on the chalkboard and my children’s incessant use of the “M” word!
Cars have clutches for a reason, and if it’s not working you are going to destroy your transmission by continuing to shift without it. Even I know that! Phyllis Tickle observes in The Great Emergence, that the grinding is not simply a friction between cultures, or faith traditions or even generations, but that it belongs in an even broader context. Tickle contends that we are in a transitional period of the kind that come around every 500 years, and skipping back through time, she lands on each one of these great transitions, like boulders sticking out of the river of history, to summarize how each has sent that river off in a new direction. The cogs that are now grinding out such a cacophony are of the modern era transitioning into the next era, in many places without a clutch, and this shift is being called, “The Great Emergence.”
There are some, like the charming Danish pastors I got to spend time with, who see this coming, embrace it and are trying to ease their traditional, Modern-era congregations through it by wisely and sensitively engaging the clutch as they attempt to shift to a higher gear. But many of us were neither in the drivers seat of our previous congregations, nor was there someone there who shared these sensibilities. I think some of us, who have opted out of the modern church construct altogether, jumped ship, so to speak, because we found ourselves in a setting (local congregation, denomination, para-church organization, Academia) where there was no clutch, or we ourselves were not in a position to engage it. At first we did take it personally, and indeed such a shift gives rise to much personal conflict and friction, of which we have certainly had our share. But discovering testimonies world wide of others who were experiencing or observing the same grinding of gears, helped us to put our experience into a larger context. Also the observation that alone in our small town of a quarter million people, we know of scores of congregations that are struggling with leadership, vision, control and trust issues leaving many, many disillusioned and wounded.
So, have we been pushed out or called out of the congregations in which we once worked and worshiped and wept? Yes. We have. And... No. We haven’t. We have chosen to pull off to the side of the road and have a look under the hood. We are trying to distinguish or name the interference, describe the clogs on the gear of the new era, and see if we can get the vehicle operating again without completely ruining the transmission. Many of us recognize that we are a part of this new era, but still want to engage with the best part of our faith tradition, all the while remaining as flexible, light weight and transient as possible.