There is one important person who helped start the entire discussion about “Progressive Christianity” or the “Emerging Church” who has been silenced. He is speaking again, and I’d suggest we all welcome him back. Let me explain:
Somewhere around 1996 an organization called Leadership Network pulled together about 10-20 young leaders in the church to begin a discussion about ministry for Generation X. Within a few months, the conversation morphed into a more academic one about post-modernism and theology. I was there. I wasn’t a strong voice, but somehow I was invited in a few months into the process. I was only 23.
Many of the “emerging” leaders who sat in that room have greatly influenced the current state of the American church. Around 1998 I wandered out of the conversation and fell into the smaller “house church” or “organic church” subset of the group. Then I eventually left that discussion as well. I was burnt out on discussing anything at all – until recently.
A few years ago, a Yale Divinity student called me to do an interview for her thesis. I thought it was an odd thing, but I took the call. The premise of her paper was that those meetings in the mid-nineties changed the face of American Christianity for the long haul. She wanted to get my take on what it was like from the inside. I could barely remember any details, but I told her a few stories. If her premise is true, I can’t take any of the credit or blame for what has happened since. I didn’t contribute much at all, but evidently I had a great seat to watch history in the making.
The loudest voices of my peers seemed to be Mark Driscoll, Chris Seay, Brad Cecil and Doug Pagitt. (If you know of these guys, you can easily see the extremely different results of those early conversations with 15 years of hindsight.) They were all roughly my age, but much more vocal and confident than me.
There were some “older” voices speaking into the discussion as well. (It’s funny for me to realize that the older people back then were younger than I am now.) People like Brian McLaren, Sally Morgenthaler, Todd Hunter, and many others. I also met rogue Christians like Joel Vestal, Andrew Jones, and Tony Jones. There was this 22-year old clean cut ball-cap-wearing worship leader named David Crowder whom I especially liked. I was just lucky to be there with all these fascinating people.
But, here’s the thing. As much as I liked everyone, there were two guys who interacted differently with me. There were all these green up-and-coming leaders jostling amongst themselves to take the reins of an unknown movement, and then there was Dieter Zander and Tim Celek. They had about a decade on all of us. They were actually pastoring established churches full of young people, so they had less patience to sit around and debate post-modern theory with us. They had just co-written a very practical little book called Inside the Soul of New Generation.
Looking back on it now, they simply took the time to get to know me and love me. Maybe they saw that I wasn’t ever going to be one of the louder voices in this new movement. But they seemed to see something else in me. Dieter would call to check up on me from time to time. Tim invited me to speak at his church several years in a row. (Which was great because it meant free vacations to Newport Beach at a time when we were dirt poor.) Of everyone, Tim had the most personal impact on my life, trusting me to wade back into vocational ministry at his church, The Crossing, in 2005. The two years there showed me that I could have a place in the organized church again. There’s no way I am here now without Tim believing in me back then.
But Dieter and I lost touch. He was at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago leading a huge sub-church called Axis. We’d talk from time to time in those days. Then he moved to San Francisco to start a house church. It would have made sense for us to reconnect then, but we didn’t. In 2008, Dieter suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak, sing or play piano. His whole life he had made a living as public speaker and worship leader. It was devastating. I should have reached out, but I didn’t. I was sure he had closer friends to help him recover and just thought I’d get in the way. Maybe this post now is my way of finally reaching out on behalf of all of us.
Here is how Dieter describes himself now:
“I lost most of my speech and the use of my right hand. I am creative and an artist. I’ve been a musician, pianist, singer, bandleader, composer, teacher, pastor, writer, counselor, speaker, but that’s gone now. I’m alive! I’m married, parent, friend, son, brother, and God’s child. I’m creative and an artist again. I’m a photographer. And I love it!”
Dieter’s life is harder now. He is a preacher and singer without a voice. In response, he has turned to visual art to communicate. I would love to add Dieter’s “voice” back into the current conversation. Below is a video Dieter created using his art to tell his story. Check it out, along with his photography website.