This is what we know:
God’s people will continue to meet together, for worship, support and encouragement, inspiration, and mission. They will design this in ways that make sense to each of their culturally stratified situations.
This is what we have learned:
It is really hard to change existing churches! It is not only hard to accomplish but it may not be fair. Consider the pastoral implications of demanding that a generation, who has worshiped meaningfully and successfully with a particular style of music and liturgy, suddenly give all that up because kids don’t like it. It isn’t fair to anyone.
This, then, is what we can do:
New churches; new faith communities in existing churches; new worship services, new fellowships, new identities and new strategies!
Can it work? Yes.
There is, in fact, nothing new to this strategy. It has been used whenever the Gospel has successfully penetrated a culture. Any missionary knows the goal to be “indigenous churches,” that is, churches that successfully translate the Gospel into the new culture, churches that utilize familiar indigenous music, leadership, and dress. Nothing new, then, but it seems so scarce. Funny that a denomination like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), employing more than 11,000 ministers, will only plant some 30-40 churches this year, and of those, about half will fulfill the goals set for them.
For all the talk of the “mission field at the doorstep,” we must not really believe it. We must still be under the impression that we have plenty of churches to reach this culture, just because we have reached one or two sub-groups within the culture.
In fact, what this cultural context clearly calls for is a large number of specialized new churches targeting the various indigenous sub-cultures and styles. Each will be different, based on the needs of the target group. But we can no longer assume that one large church is sufficient for a wide swath of diverse populations, even if it does use guitars in worship!
These new churches and faith communities can define success differently. One may target affluent “baby boomers,” who need churches as much as anyone else. It may realize “success” by becoming self-sustaining and growing in significant numbers; while a church designed to be a storefront ministry to run-away teens, homeless street people, and drug users will define success in different terms. This is a healthy discussion — we need to be able to speak about the success and failure of these projects in honest, open ways.
Sociology and Gen-X
There is no such thing as “Generation X.” Good sociology tells us that the dominant trends in our culture, for many reasons, are all toward stratification. Each separate people group will have a distinctive identity, sub-culture, and church. The melting pot days are over. Instead, as the culture moves forward, we will see:
Latino urban Gen X
Suburban Black Gen X
Rural Anglo Gen X
Churched Gen X
Young Life Gen X
Korean 1.5 Gen X
Urban African American Gen X
Wealthy Urban Anglo Gen X
Welfare Urban Anglo Gen X
And many other variations….
As the mainline begins to gain momentum, by planting a large number and a wide variety of churches, some things will remain the same. The history and tradition of denominational identity need not be forfeit. Others will have to understand that doing it differently, not “doing it like we do,” is different from “not Presbyterian.” We will all have to distill our traditions and understand the vital core of our faith and our identity. The old phrase still holds true, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”
A Call to Missiology
But what is the bathwater, and what is baby? What is the goal? This is the missiological task for the emerging church.
Is the goal to preserve the great tradition of sacred choral music? If so, then, start a museum. Is the goal to reach an emerging subculture with the Good News of Christ’s coming to them? Then music is a relative, not an absolute. Find the music that works for them. Find the liturgy that works for them! All our traditions were alive once: we prayed a prayer of confession in the liturgy because it was heartfelt, it helped, it connected. If, now, a culture steeped in pop-psychology and floundering in guilt, carrying an image of God as a vengeful, vindictive deity, chokes on that same prayer, find what works! That is what Calvin did—he found what worked. That is what Luther did, that is what Wesley did.
That is why the people responded, obviously. That is how a movement is born.
Geneva gowns worked for a long time. They may work in some settings now. In other settings they might not work. It is just an item of clothing. Likewise vestments, and likewise golf shirts. They are all symbolic — even the golf shirt. Find the symbols that communicate to the culture you are called to reach, the culture you have come to reach.
A recent example: I teach a doctoral course on church renewal for a Presbyterian seminary. One student talked to me about the problem his friend was having in several rural parishes. He was a seminarian, attempting to serve as a visiting preacher. I had been teaching these ideas of sorting out baby and bath water, of culture and church, of relative and absolute. Now here we were, in a test case. His friend found trouble in the churches he visited, because he refused to wear a necktie. He was not accepted as a minister, or even as a seminarian with something to say, because of his dress.
The student was telling the story to illustrate how stuffy these churches had become, how hidebound and stuck in their ways these rural churches can be.
I had to turn it around. It offers a great parable of missiology. The point is: Why not wear a necktie? If that is what it takes to be accepted, to give your message a chance to go forth in a culture that respects neckties, then, by all means, put on the stupid tie. It is only a slab of silk around your neck. Is that really more important to you than the chance to preach to these people? If so, I had to say, tell your friend to find another line of work.
Haberdashery? Pipe organs or guitars? Means to an end, that is all. What works? Incense, or overhead projectors? What works? It is all matter of means and ends.
How did we get so attached to the bath water? Remember Joseph Fort Newton’s line: “We are not called to do something for the church, our call is to do something with the church.” In that great, missiological sense, the church itself is not a means to an end.
Tradition and our Future
In many segments of the emerging generation, some forms of tradition seem to thrive. There is a notable longing for something of permanence and historicity in a world where virtually everything is changing. Liturgies that work with some awareness of tradition, that use candles or chants seem to be as popular in some demographic profiles as the electric guitars and overhead screens. Some worship styles combine all of these elements in a worship that is uniquely “Emergent.”
It seems possible now that the younger generations, “Gen X” (remember, there is no Gen X) and the Millennials (they don’t exist either — stratification!) may prefer smaller, more intimate churches with congregations of one to two hundred over the great cathedralesque mega-churches of the Boomer generation.
Even as I write this, the landscape is changing. All our predictions are premature. (What would you have predicted about the Boomer generation in, say, 1970?) Everything will change. Small people groups will emerge around ethnic identities, economic lifestyles, geographical and political factors, each with distinct needs and interests, representing very special opportunities for the Gospel to move forward in a stratified America. This is not bad news. It presents a wonderful opportunity.
We do not need to re-invent the wheel. Not only can our newly interpreted tradition survive and thrive, but so can our polity. We are organized, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and these emerging churches will need organization. Our organization does not stifle leadership or creativity, does it? Let’s see that it doesn’t. Within our organization and tradition, we have the room — we have the room — we simply have to find the room for some radical re-invention. We have to let the questions and struggles of our time strip away the accretions, and peel us down to the raw stuff of our faith and identity, then begin to rebuild new Christian communities on this sure and strong foundation.
Charles Denison is associate for new church development, national ministries division, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This article appears in a slightly different form as Chapter 7 of Dr. Denison’s book, Mainline Manifesto: The Inevitable New Church.