Catalyst is not the kind of conference I am used to. It is far more Emergent than anything of which I’ve been accustomed. Their guest list made this apparent: Rob Bell, Shane Hipps, Jessica Jackley, and Malcolm Gladwell (of course they also had Matt Chandler, Andy Stanley, and Chuck Swindoll). I did learn a great deal from being at the event, however, and was both encouraged and challenged. One speaker, however, reflected what has, in my mind, plagued the Emergent church leaders.
Shane Hipps, a former ad executive for Porsche turned Mennonite pastor, spoke Thursday afternoon. He began by discussing the relationship between the message and its medium. He started out taking us down familiar paths, the medium affects the message, etc. But what happened next threw me, and my church group, for a loop. “The message always changes!” Said Hipps. He proceeded then to string together a sea of cliches and metaphors about how Christians should embrace this “ever changing message.”
The gospel is organic, he said, and like a plant it needs room to grow and develop. Therefore Christian leaders need to be less like guards and more like gardeners. If you get the impression that Shane is tossing the Bible out the window he responds that he is in no way doing that. The Bible is full of diamonds, he says, and we need to, as Christian leaders, go digging for these diamonds and uncover the sweet beauty of the Bible. So good Christian leaders are gardeners and spelunkers.
If all of this wasn’t weird enough, when Hipps finally began drawing his lecture to a close I realized that he hadn’t said anything really tangible for most of the lecture. In fact he kept using the word “gospel” in such an ambiguous way that it was hard to understand what he even meant to communicate. It was his final comment that brought concreteness to his whole lecture: the gospel is ambiguous and only your individual communities can define it. In light of his final word, then, I can make sense of all that he said before hand but it seemed blatantly dishonest to not be upfront about what he believed from the beginning of the lecture. Furthermore it ruined the entire communication process by being so metaphorical.
You see metaphors are extremely powerful tools, and can greatly aid communication. But when you are using a metaphor to describe another metaphor to describe some ill defined terminology it becomes completely asinine. Mister Hipps represents a common trend in much of the Emergent preaching I hear these days. It is full of cliches and catchy and pithy sayings, but it lacks any definiteness or anything concrete. Perhaps that is simply a result of the postmodern philosophy they have embraced, which bemoans any sort of absolutism.
Whatever the reason for the trend, Christians need to be definite in their communication. When we speak on matters of truth, where truth can be known, we must boldly and plainly say what we mean. Where the truth matters Christians need to speak it plainly and clearly. Our culture is drowning in a sea of metaphors, clever cliches, and ambiguous phraseology. Christians can throw a life line by speaking the truth.