I recently learned of a concept called the Great Emergence, which is a term used by many to describe what has been happening in the Church for the last several decades. Fewer people are part of faith communities; many take bits and pieces from many religions to build their own belief structure; many congregations are “doing” church in ways that seem very “unchurch-like.” Politics, social structure, communications, ethics and personal values, economics, are all part of a society – indeed a world – in upheaval.
Author Phyllis Tickle begins her book The Great Emergence with a brief history lesson, in 500-year chunks. Working backwards from today, 500 years ago was the Great Reformation, officially beginning in 1517 when Luther and other reformers changed history by attempting to reform the way church was done. A piece of paper nailed to a door didn’t seem like much, but it ended up changing the world.
Five hundred years before that, in 1054, was the Great Schism, a major split between Greek and Roman church doctrine. At issue were: the use of Greek or Latin for worship language, the use of leavened or unleavened bread, and whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son. They don’t seem like much today, but back then, these were literally church-splitting issues.
Five hundred years before that was Gregory the Great, who became pope in 590. He brought order out of chaos in society as well as in the church. Five hundred years before that was Jesus, and the beginning of the Christian Church. The Apostle Paul himself was part of a great social and religious re-formation.
According to the concept of the Great Emergence, we are in a time of what Tickle and others call re-formation. Not all agree that we are in the midst of such major changes in the church, but I believe we are. There was a time when everything in society revolved around the church. Everyone who could get there attended Sunday worship. Confirmation class and mid-week worship could be scheduled on Wednesday evening because nothing in town happened on church night except church events.
Now, it seems nothing is sacred. There is so much competition for time that once was set apart for church. There are many reasons why this is true. One of the reasons is the removal of organized religion and many other forms of authority from the pedestals of respect they once held.
Plus, the child-raising method of offering choices led many to choose to not participate in church. Many children raised in the 50s and 60s were not forced to attend church. Parents reasoned: I was forced to go to church, and I don’t want to force my children to go. I’ll let them choose when they are grown. Because they were never exposed to it, most of those children have never known the joy of knowing Jesus, have never experienced the blessings of belonging to a church community. They often believe in God, but have no connection to a community of faith to shape their beliefs and challenge their misconceptions.
The mission field, which used to be identified as Africa or Asia, is now right outside our walls. The mission field is all the people in our community who have never met Jesus, the people who have been offended by something that was said or done by church people, and the people who are seeking something greater for their lives besides spending money on the next big house, car, or electronic gadget. They simply do not know what they are looking for, yet. The mission field is even the people who try to scam us into giving them money.
When we make plans to reach out to the people who are in the mission field, we have to consider the context. This is just what Paul did in Athens. Paul himself was part of a Great Re-formation. His calling was to take Christianity out of Judaism and into mainstream Greco-Roman culture.
Jesus and Paul lived in a time when people had many gods: twelve main gods and many lesser gods, who were called on for a variety of needs. Just in case there was no god for a particular kind of need, or who had not yet been revealed to the people, the unknown god was available. Paul claimed this unknown god as his God, as YHWH, the creator of all that is, who was revealed in Jesus.
Any Jews who may have been present would have been scandalized. How dare Paul claim that our God is one god among many! There is only one God, our God! Paul goes further, quoting well-known Greek philosophers, using their words to make his point. Paul speaks in a pattern of rhetoric, using their style of communication to help them hear what he has to say. He sums up his message in a call to believe in Jesus, in a God bigger and better than any god they have ever known. Paul uses the context he is in, their own communication methods, and takes advantage of a connection between their beliefs and his own. Paul does whatever he can to make Jesus understandable to the people he is trying to reach.
Today, if we want to effectively reach out to the people who are not here in our congregation, we have to identify the context in which they live, and use the context and the communication methods to get our message across. Assuming Phyllis Tickle is correct, and we are in the midst of a re-formation, this probably means we need to think outside what we consider the traditional methods of evangelism. A few ideas I know work are:
o Bible studies at McDonald’s – or maybe the Bistro across the street to take our version of Christianity out of our building, so other folks can overhear us, and maybe join in the conversation
o Electronic messaging during worship – with cell phones on silent, but open to receive and respond to tweets sent by the pastor and others about the readings and the sermon
o Replacing a few pews with tables and chairs works especially well for families with children, people with disabilities, and anyone with a cup of coffee
o Service which directly connects members to the community, for example, pack turkey sandwich lunches and deliver them to people who have to work on Thanksgiving Day: cashiers, bus drivers, police officers, and others
o Book Clubs, yoga or walking clubs, dinner clubs, women’s and men’s groups – easy to invite others into without requiring Sunday worship as a starting point, and often held outside church walls
o A blend of music and music styles, from Fanny Crosby to Casting Crowns
o Radical hospitality, that doesn’t expect people to come and be like us who are already here (for example, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints was used to their own quirkiness, a collection of gays and lesbians, addicts, and others. When “regular” people came to worship, it felt like an invasion, it felt wrong. They had to take time to process how they could live together as one congregation. )
While we don’t do all of these things, we already do some of them. If we are going to grow as a congregation, in faith and in numbers, we need to be open to new, creative ways of using worship space. We need to make more and better use of technology. We need to be willing to do some old things in new ways, without ever forgetting that Jesus and his love for us – all of us – is at the center of all that we are and do.
We need to be bolder in telling others about who we are, as Hope, and as Lutherans. We need to be as bold as Paul in speaking about Jesus’ love for us all into the context in which we now live and operate as a faith community. We need to find more ways, new ways, to invite in those who are not here. We need to watch for ways to welcome the gifts that newcomers bring, even if they are not very much like us.
I believe that we are in an era of societal and church re-formation. At the very least we are in an era of re-forming Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church. We can either be part of the re-forming church, or we will fail. The money will run out and the last person here will close the door for the last time.
We do not seek to do this on our own, but we will be led into the future by our loving and gracious God. God gave Paul the words and the insight to take the new Christian Church to the Gentiles, and gave Peter the faith and the passion to follow Jesus and then lead his church among Jews. This same God claims us today as children, and uses us the same way God used Peter and Paul, to reach more of God’s children, so all can experience the love Jesus died to share.
Please pray with me: Jesus, your coming as a human shook up the world in ways those present never expected. Your Spirit’s presence continues to shape and shake up the world today. Make your presence known to us, guide us and our discernment , lead us boldly into the future, for your sake. Amen