Johnson, a lawyer turned theologian – presently professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary – delivered the opening address at a leadership conference organized by a group that sees itself in “a reformation moment for the church.”
Conference leaders, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s, acknowledge in the event guide that they are “honoring and celebrating the past,” but that “the Spirit is calling a new church into being.” The church of the future, they say, “will be more relational, move diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful, and more agile.”
The conference opened with worship including preaching by Reggie Weaver, pastor of First Church of Chicago – of the three churches that claim to be the oldest in Chicago, he joked. Expounding on the encounter of the apostles with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus, he suggested that “dead zones” become “hot spots” (places of genuine encounter with God) whenever people truly lay hold of the promise and power of the resurrection.
Johnson followed with an exposition on the resurrection, too, but only after first taking participants on an encounter with the cross. He began by quoting I Cor. 1:18: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Two ways to live
Johnson said there are two ways to live: one following the logic of survival – which recognizes that we are perishing and, therefore, will do whatever it takes to survive – and one following the way of Jesus by taking up the cross. The church seems to be caught up in the hopeless effort to save itself, fighting to survive. Understandably so, because “one thing we know,” he said, is that the church has been taken captive to a “cultural and generational tsunami” that requires adaptive change. And the primary adaptation needed is the one people and organizations instinctively resist: the way of the cross.
Indeed, the need for adaptive change in the church comes not merely quoting statistics of shrinkage – although Johnson did rehearse some of those numbers. Adaptive change is required by a more faithful reading of the gospel itself.
“The real adaptive challenge is to go behind the doctrinal structure of Christendom to a deeper understanding of the gospel itself. We need to envision and re-envision the gospel and how we embody it,” he said. “It’s not just that we need a better delivery system for the gospel. It’s that we need to understand the gospel to live it more clearly.”
Further, he added, “We always stand somewhere between reform and revolution. The Kingdom of God is about revolution. The revolution is God’s revolution. We’re not about bringing revolution. But our reform needs to be in service of God’s revolution.”
So how shall the church live into such revolution and reform?
Johnson offered three keys: poetry, prayer and prophetic witness.
No, he wasn’t advocating speaking in meter and rhyme. Rather, given that the Greek word, poesis, actually means “to make or create,” Johnson said that believers need to rediscover the biblical texts that teach us about God not by forming sweeping theological categories but by painting metaphors and weaving stories. “A poetic theology is a creative theology, a constructive theology. It’s about taking the gospel and making it sing again,” he affirmed.
A people in prayer, not as arm-wrestling God to match our interests but to echo Jesus’ words, “not my will but yours be done,” invites us to think, he said, like Gerald May, who taught us, “It is when our beliefs about God crumble that we finally may stop worshiping our beliefs … and begin to worship God.”
Finally, at the heart of the Christian religion are the passion for justice and righteousness that stand so central to Israel’s prophetic tradition, he said. “And Jesus stands right in the heart of that tradition.” Johnson declared that his great hope for the church is that so many young people today “don’t care about liberal religion or about conservative religion but about prophetic religion.”
And, true to the prophetic message of Jesus’ ministry, the prophetic message assures that the world is the arena of God’s acting, and that God has a future focus. Resurrection faith says, “There’s more to come.” Or quoting Tony Campolo’s oft-quoted line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”