An Assessment of Great Worth

Some several weeks ago now, I spent a laughter-filled few days in Tellico Community, in my native East Tennessee hills. While going home again has never been big on my list of to-do things, those few days have given me pause to re-consider.

Anyway, be all that as it may, my two or three days in Tellico were to be spent with the staff and people of Tellico Community Church, a very large and, at first blush, traditional church serving what is quite definitely a huge retirement community. As one might expect, the subject was to be Emergence Christianity, and I was supposed to do the talking. What happened was that that surface veneer of a traditional church composed of senior citizens peeled away within less than an hour of my being there. What took its place was a body of the gathered who, having come into Tellico Community from every known denomination and communion in Christendom, have managed in their retirement to blend their worship, their space, and their actions into a singular expression of contexualized
Christianity and/or contextual church. More to the point, what they really wanted to talk about was how they fit into the over-all landscape of Emergence
Christianity and how what they were and had built and were building could interface with what God is doing in His Kingdom at large.

Near the end of my time in that lively company, the conversation turned to the business of constructed space and, ultimately, to what could only be called a discussion about the theology of place as it informs both inherited church and fresh expressions of church.

Once the week-end was over and I was back in my own office, albeit wiser than I had been before Tellico, I received a note from Rhonda Blevins, the thirty-something-year-old associate pastor at Tellico Community. Attached to it was a mini-essay she had written. While her words were obviously intended primarily for Tellico Community, I was so struck by the wisdom of them and so encouraged by their having arisen out of the context of a community of elder Christians that I asked permission to publish here most of the essay:

The conversation left me thinking. Is the Emergence Church wrong—should it be more concerned with a theology of place, interested in buildings and real estate? Or is the traditional church wrong—should it be less concerned with buildings, enabling it to be more ready to respond to whatever comes its way?

As I have reflected on these seemingly opposing arguments, I am convinced that neither approach is “right”—neither approach is “wrong.” Both ways of doing church are necessary to meet the diversity within the church during this Great Emergence. And both approaches are biblical.

Consider David and Solomon. Their temple in Jerusalem was a thing of glory—a fixture on a hill representing the height of Jewish power and influence, as well as God’s covenant promise coming to fruition. Try telling Solomon that his temple wasn’t necessary. He might just lose a little wisdom. Later on as the diaspora was coming to a close, one of the first steps of the Jews returning to Jerusalem was rebuilding the temple, chronicled in the
book of Ezra. That same site is now a point of great contention between the three Abrahamic faith traditions. The embattled temple mound remains the destination of pilgrimage for people of many faiths. There is a powerful “theology of place” at that “holy” place in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, consider Jesus and company. He and his followers were mostly itinerant, moving about, telling people of a new way. While Jesus learned and then taught in the temple and in synagogues throughout the region, he seemed only nominally connected to the buildings of the institutionalized faith. He was doing a new thing which required freedom from the moorings of traditional Judaism and the buildings which represented it. The early church distances itself from the bricks and mortar of Judaism as well, meeting in homes until that was no longer feasible.

Emergence Christians, like Jesus, are doing a new thing. Unsure of what the future holds,they need the flexibility of mobility. The traditional church on the other hand, enjoys the rootedness that comes with bricks and mortar. The primary concern of the institutional church is preserving the faith while emergence

Christians are more concerned with evolving the faith. They are on a journey, which requires agility. The traditional church prefers being settled, which
requires stability. High vaulted ceilings and pipe organs speak to God’s transcendence, while meeting in coffee shops remind us of God’s immanence. Both
approaches are needed in this era of transformation.
Emergence Christianity and the traditional church have much to offer one another. Emergence Christians may need the buildings of the traditional church to be a sort of “mother ship,” returning from time to time for rest and reprieve for the difficult work of starting a new colony. The traditional church may benefit from the energy and thoughtfulness of emergence Christians. They are keen observers of “what matters” and what does not serve the cause of Christ well. Like the parents of young adults who recently left the nest to create a new life, perhaps the traditional church can send emergence Christians out to do their “new thing” while leaving an open door and offering the open arms of hospitality to them. All parents want their offspring to succeed, to venture off and create a vibrant, healthy, independent life of their own. At the same time, most parents want to remain in relationship with their adult kids. Perhaps the traditional church and emergence church can find a way to love, appreciate, and respect one another while allowing one another to live quite separate and distinct lives. This is called relationship. This is the calling for those on both sides of this new thing in our midst.

And that is well-said, Pastor, well worth sharing…

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  • Cathlene Brady

    Where can I ask for permission to print this (the essay part) in our monthly church newletter?

  • Thank you, Phyllis and Rhonda. I believe that one of the gifts of emergence Christianity to the traditional Church is the former’s focus on authenticity. This is not to say that our tradition (Episcopal, in my case) isn’t authentic, but that each faith community must recognize, claim and act on its own particular call and mission. The parish I serve has been aided by using an emergent-type approach in its corporate discernment, which has opened up exciting new doors to ministry while allowing us to remain firmly rooted in what is a very life-giving heritage for us.

  • Another approach would be to “plant a vegetable garden in the flower garden” so to speak, as suggested by Michael Piazza and Cameron Trimble in their book Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church. They note: “The future of the progressive church will rest in our ability to plant vegetable gardens” and “giving birth is easier than raising the dead – easier but a whole lot messier.” I am interested – who has tried this and has been successful taking this middle approach?

  • Pr. Jim Judy

    Wise words! And timely as a cluster of the NWPa Synod, ELCA are in conversation about sharing ministry among six churches precisely concerned about the tension (?) /opportunity of somehow making peace between theology of place and call to mission in the world. Need we add to that the imperative of definition and modeling of forms that draw youth back into the church?

  • Like some others, I don’t think the question needs to be either/or, buildings or mission/flexibility/contextuality whatever. The key question is what we do with whatever resources we have available–that is contextuality. That’s what Jesus was doing, sometimes preaching in synagogue, sometimes on the lakeshore. Shunning steeples in favor of coffee shops can be as idolatrous as insisting that “real” worship depends on Bach and Buxtehude.

  • Presently the traditional ‘mother ship’ and those who are called into experimentation with different models of ministry must co-exist and learn from each other. But down the road, the Church of Tomorrow is more likely to model the original organizational structure of the Mosaic encampment as described in Exodus. Such an idea does not reflect a backward movement in time, but rather a ‘full circle completion’ of a divine plan that was inspired thousands years ago for a reason. This ancient model features a ‘sacred place’ – the tabernacle – as a symbol of God’s presence in the encampment. But the daily ministry of the church on earth took place within small tribal clusters of 1000’s – a human NET of well organized Israelite neighborhoods. Thus the corporate worship of God was reflected in just and equitable living within the neighborhood, while the ‘sacred place’ merely symbolized God’s presence – the polar opposite of the way in which our present models function! In other words, the church was the neighborhood itself – God’s people living out the will of God. The church was not the tabernacle. The tabernacle was not the church. The idealic Mosaic encampment as described in Exodus may in fact be mythical rather than literal. But it doesn’t matter. There is deep wisdom to be gleaned from the Mosaic encampment and the spiritual concepts espoused in this particular account.