Reflections on 2007
It’s been a good year. I’ve spoken with about 50 different groups in 7 countries since January, and two observations have been confirmed time after time. First, committed Christians and churches around the world are having many similar struggles. Second, real signs of hope are emerging from the struggle. Leaders are waking up to our changing global context. They’re going deeper and deeper in their diagnosis of the problem, and as they do so, they’re seeing Jesus and the gospel in a beautiful new light. The center of gravity is beginning to shift.
Of course, this year has also meant plenty of push-back for all of us involved in this conversation and friendship called emergent. A few books have been released which identify some of my friends and me as enemies and heretics and so on, and the blogosphere continues to churn out colorful accusations from a small but vocal number of our fellow Christians. (We were even linked with Al Qaeda by one fellow this year.) But this trickle of negative response is minuscule when compared to the intensely positive response that pours in. For example, the other day I received this note from a 22 year-old senior at a state university in the U.S (edited slightly for anonymity):
I have for almost a decade been a disbeliever in Christianity. I never felt a peace within the religion and have searched in other places only to be left with more questions (albeit more knowledge) than answers.
I have never read a more moving piece about a Christian leader. I have never felt such love come through the pages and I have never felt more comforted in the idea of a greater being as I am after reading this piece. Christianity has always struck me as a "hateful" religion, and for years now I have considered myself a non-religious individual. I feel a change. This is a strange strange place in which I find myself. Again, thank you for offering the world a more peaceful loving Christianity.
At the other extreme are pastors, like a Pentecostal pastor I met in Germany a few weeks back. He embraced me and tearfully said that if he hadn’t found the emergent community, he wouldn’t be in ministry today. Or just last night, a former worship pastor and his daughter told me how her questions have driven the two of them into deep dialogue which is reawakening both of them spiritually: “We drove four hours just to say thanks, and to say we want to help this movement grow,” they said.
I’ve heard this kind of thing again and again and again this year. With so many young people – and older leaders – leaving the church because they don’t want to be associated with a “hateful religion,” because they’re fatigued by the petty politics and disputes, because they’re seeking truth beyond the easy and pat answers they are routinely given, and because they are seeking an authentic, transforming experience with God, it feels like such an important moment and opportunity we have been given – helping people find safe and hospitable space to enter or stay in the Christian faith as “a new kind of Christian,” even if they’re not wanted in this or that neighborhood of the church world.
I’d like to offer three encouragements for all who consider themselves part of this emergent phenomenon. First, please don’t respond harshly to criticism. Yes, some people are mean-spirited, but many are simply misinformed or under stress and afraid; some are as yet unready or unable to see the possibility that their current views could be improved; and many are well-meaning and simply disagree. In any case, let’s refuse to respond in kind when mocked, slandered, misrepresented, or simply disagreed with; let’s surprise people with grace and good cheer. Hot religious rhetoric is nothing new in religious history, and in fact, we’ve got it easy if all that’s coming at is us harsh words. None of us have faced what Dr. King faced when he affirmed his commitment to non-retaliation:
To our most bitter opponents we say: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and threaten our children and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
Sometimes it’s very tempting to respond to a zinger with a zinger, to mockery with mockery, and so on. But I like the way my friend Shane Claiborne says it (by the way, his new book, Jesus for President, is amazing): We need to learn to disagree well. One of the best ways we will mature enough to move beyond the current religious status quo is by learning a new and better way of discourse in difference. Of course we have a long way to go, but I can see we’re making progress.
Second, I think we need to acknowledge that something big is going on, bigger than any one group or movement or label. It’s like a root that’s growing under a sidewalk, slowly, silently raising the slab of the status quo and cracking it so that new things can emerge. It’s happening in diverse ways in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. It’s happening among mainline churches and Evangelical churches, liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics; it’s happening among anglo, latino, black, asian and Native American churches. None of us owns it; none of us leads or controls it; none of us even fully grasps what it is yet. But I believe it’s the beginnings of an awakening and movement of the Holy Spirit. Whether it will be welcomed so it can have free course, or rebuffed or distorted or otherwise aborted … that in many ways depends on us. Pride, greed, fear, reactivity, and self-indulgence will pollute and destroy it; humility, generosity, faith, wisdom, and self-control will let it run free. My constant prayer these days is, “Lord, let it come. Let it begin and flow through me.”
Third, I hope we can resist the inevitable pull toward fragmentation and sectarianism that seem to be perennial occupational hazards of Christian ministry and mission. I felt this strongly a few weeks back in Marburg, Germany. Our German friends Peter and Bjorn took Jason Clark and me to the Marburg Castle, which overlooks the old city. There in 1529, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met to discuss the possibility of uniting the German and Swiss reformation movements. Their meeting ended without concord. As I stood at the castle wall looking over the city, I thought of all the wonderful people I’ve met over the last few years, around North America and across the world. What could it mean if we continue to move forward together with open arms rather than crossed arms, with open hands rather than pointing fingers or clenched fists?
Of course, some people find themselves unable to keep their arms and hands and hearts open wide. But for myself, I want to have the posture of Martin Bucer, who kept his arms open to both Luther and Zwingli, working tirelessly to model an irenic attitude, seeking harmony, and staying friends with people who postured themselves as enemies to one another. I understand that Luther at one point coined a word – something akin to bucerizing – to describe the work of peace-making and bridge building.
I want my arms and hands to be open toward liberals and conservatives, mainliners and Evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox, gay-affirming and gay-accepting-but-not-affirming, Republicans and Democrats. I want to look for common ground and focus on Jesus, the center point who holds all things together for us. I want to see difference as diversity rather than division, and as opportunity rather than threat. I want to show the same respect to people who hold different opinions as I would want them to show to me. Of course I’ll fail at this at times, but I hope I never abandon this commitment as my ideal and goal.
Looking ahead, 2008 promises to be an important year. With our elections in the US, we could finally move forward from the religious cold-war era of left and right, or we could retrench and backslide into the same old polarized, paralyzed politics. We could stay stuck in simplistic, single-issue morality, or we could mature in our integration of faith and public life. We could persist in our pre-emptive warrior mode, or move toward a new neighborliness. My guess is that these new things that are emerging in and among us will get a good bit of media attention as journalists try to make sense of deep shifts that are occurring among people of faith. I hope we can all lean forward and nudge things toward a tipping point!
All this will be intensified by some important books coming out this year – by Phyllis Tickle, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Shane Claiborne and others. Meanwhile, plans are developing behind the scenes for an “American Greenbelt” – a national gathering around faith, justice, and art; it won’t launch in 2008, but it will probably “go public” before too long (stay tuned). Groups like emergentvillage.com and sojo.net will continue to resource innovation and awakening here in the US, and similar things are happening in many places around the globe.
I hope to see many of you on my eleven-city tour that begins in just a matter of weeks now. If you’re in or near Charlotte, Dallas, Boise, San Diego, Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Kansas City, Northern Indiana, Chicago, or Tampa/St. Pete, there’s still time to register for the “Everything Must Change” Tour, which you can do at deepshift.org. If you haven’t signed up for my email newsletter, you can also do so at deepshift.org.
Finally, thanks to all the individuals and groups who have warmly welcomed me to their countries, cities, churches, and homes in 2007. All around us are signs of hope, springing from people of hope who share in the gospel of hope. Thanks be to God!
Let’s keep learning, growing, serving, and plotting goodness together -