A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 1)

A while back, I asked readers to pose questions to Mike Clawson, a Christian pastor who frequently comments on this site. There were a lot of great questions, and today, I’ll begin posting Mike’s responses.

Here’s Mike:

Several of the questions put to me were very similar. A few of you (Dan Harlow, Robert, writerdd, and Richard Wade) especially wanted to know more about the emerging church, how prevalent my views are and how I interact with fundamentalist Christians.

As for the prevalence of emerging church views, I really can’t say. It’s a very new movement and the boundaries are hard to define. George Barna has estimated there is somewhere between 5-20 million of us, but in terms of people directly engaged in the emerging church conversation, reading the books, etc. the numbers are probably more in the thousands and tens of thousands. We’ve only been around for less than a decade and it’s still more of a conversation than a movement. A lot of it is Christians from more conservative backgrounds starting to feel discontented with that brand of Christianity and looking for a new way to be a Christian, a way that has more to do with following what Jesus actually taught rather than merely trusting Jesus as a ticket to heaven when we die. (If you want to know more about the EC I’d recommend my blog post “What is the Emerging Church?” though be forewarned that it’s written primarily for Christians already familiar with a lot of the religious jargon.)

However, I should also add that it is a mistake to think that fundamentalists are the mainstream of Christianity and that more progressive Christians like me are outside the norm. For instance, some of the largest denominations in the United States representing tens of millions of Christians (e.g. United Methodists, American Baptists, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, etc.) are also very liberal and progressive in their views. Though the Emerging Church is somewhat different in their approach than these liberal denominations, we share a lot of their theological openess and progressive social values. (To answer macht’s question: no I don’t typically describe myself as a “liberal Christian” since liberalism in Christianity refers to a rather specific theological movement of the past century which I don’t entirely identify with – their concerns are generally not my concerns. To avoid confusion then, I tend to prefer terms like “progressive” and “emerging” to “liberal.”)

Anyhow, in regards to how we progressive Christians go about confronting our fundamentalist kin, I think you’ll find that many of us (to paraphrase Gandhi) want to be the change we wish to see in the church – not just complain about and argue with the fundamentalists. However, we are starting to become more vocal and learn how to get our message out there. There is a strong grassroots movement of social justice Christians starting to form with the help of people like Jim Wallis and his Sojourners network, and it is increasingly getting the attention of the media as the “Christian Left.” These are Christians who think that issues of poverty, exploitation, peacemaking, environmental sustainability, race and gender equality, etc. are far more important than trying to act as the moral police in society or turning America into a “Christian Nation”. We speak out on blogs and in the media, equip churches with resources to promote social justice issues, sponsor rallys and conferences, host Presidential candidate forums, challenge fundamentalists to debates, and especially try to put feet to our passions through ministries of compassion and justice. Rather than just criticizing the Religious Right, we’re trying to present a positive, alternative way of being a Christian in the World.

However, I know that many of us, myself included, are trying to take an even more subversive approach. I don’t want to make conservative Christians my enemies. I want to remain in dialogue and fellowship with them, and try to work for change from within. I want to subvert people from their camp one relationship, one conversation at a time. I don’t see the good of acting like a fundamentalist towards fundamentalists. The only way the world will ever change is if we respond to their hatred with love. How can atheists help counter fundamentalism? Not by getting angry and returning fire, but by inviting them to real conversations where they can get to know you as real human beings. It’s a lot harder to hate and demonize someone (from either side) when you know their story, have heard their questions and can call them a friend. It’s hard (and I don’t always do it well myself) but the alternative, I think, is just more of the same – just replacing one fundamentalism with that of another kind.

Part 2 will come tomorrow.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Mike Clawson, Christian, pastor, fundamentalist, emerging church, George Barna, Christianity, Jesus, United Methodists, American Baptists, Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Jim Wallis, Sojourners, Christian Nation, Religious Right[/tags]

  • Richard Wade

    That was a delicious, invigorating and encouraging breath of fresh air. Sometimes I think I’m going to suffocate in all the calcified and rigid thinking surrounding me. Thank you, Mike and keep going.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Wow, that’s one of the most interesting compliments I’ve ever gotten. Thanks Richard. :)

  • http://rpkthoughts.blogspot.com Robert

    My question was more towards how prevalent is this ‘Emerging Church’ theology or concept when compared to the more fundamentalist views (such as Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc..), but well said. Thanks for the reply.
    Sounds like we both take a similar stance in dealing with fundies… I also take the approach of letting my life and actions “be a witness” so to speak ;) It is a much better introduction to non-theistic conversation when people ask “Why is your life so great”, and my reply does not begin with “God has blessed me” lol…

  • http://danharlow.com Dan Harlow

    A lot of it is Christians from more conservative backgrounds starting to feel discontented with that brand of Christianity and looking for a new way to be a Christian, a way that has more to do with following what Jesus actually taught rather than merely trusting Jesus as a ticket to heaven when we die.

    I’ve been hearing more and more about people who are with faith but are longing for something a bit less “out there”. The emerging movement may be small now, but it would not surprise me to see it grow leaps and bounds in the coming years. I’m sure part of it has to do with the “big box” churches because how can anyone feel like they are part of a community when there are literally thousands of parishioners. It’s like being in school, the smaller the class, the better the education and the more attention each individual gets.

    Being raised Catholic myself, the first time I went to a “big box”, evangelical church, I have to admit that I was terrified. I’m not joking either – I was used to sitting, standing, kneeling and reciting the scrips and otherwise keeping my mouth shut because it was almost a solemn event. But when I saw people dancing, banging tambourines, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on each other I really was scared.

    Though I’m now an atheist, all the craziness of those churches just kinda struck me as disrespectful. I mean, I know the whole idea is to praise God and allow the holy spirit to enter you, but the way I grew up was so different that I could never allow myself to act like that (especially in public). For me, as a kid, God was always these giant father figure who deserved solemn respect. All the ritual and pageantry of the Catholic services seemed Holy and I felt as if I were part of something bigger.

    But, times change, both for people and institutions, so it’s nice to see that I’m not alone in how churches are being perceived.

    I’ve never been to your church, Mike, so I don’t know if you practice some of the more charismatic stuff, but it is refreshing to know that not all Christians are trying to out “fundie” each other. I never could wrap my brain around why certain Christians were so willing to close themselves off from the mainstream world by sheltering not only all their kids, but also their minds from what I see as a beautiful world. I know that some of the desire for fundamentalist Christianity derives from just wanting a safe environment for the family, but to an outsider such as myself, I could never understand why the rest of the world was being shunned and even “smote”.

    Sure, there are allot of terrible things in the world and allot of people with “dangerous” ideas out there, but I truly believe that the good in our world far outweighs the bad. So, like I said, it’s nice to know that there are people such as yourself and your church who desire to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

    Thank you, Mike, and I look forward to part II of this thread.

  • http://danharlow.com Dan Harlow

    Hemant:

    By the way, thank you for posting this thread with Mike C. I appreciate you setting up a venue where reasonable people can discuss their different views and express their thoughts without having to resort to yelling, name calling or even Goodwin’s Law.

  • Stephan

    Although I am not part of an “Emerging” church, I believe many of the same things as Mike. I love his point that it really is not conservative or liberal, but a totally new animal. I am not looking to start a new church or to leave mine, but I want to change the people I work and live with to live a life of grace rather than judgment.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I have another question and it’s trite, but I’m always curious as to the response: Why aren’t you Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or another religion?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Being raised Catholic myself, the first time I went to a “big box”, evangelical church, I have to admit that I was terrified. I’m not joking either – I was used to sitting, standing, kneeling and reciting the scrips and otherwise keeping my mouth shut because it was almost a solemn event. But when I saw people dancing, banging tambourines, speaking in tongues, and laying hands on each other I really was scared.

    I know what you mean Dan. I’ve been freaked out myself the few times I’ve visited those more raucous pentecostal type churches. (Though these are not necessarily typical of all evangelical churches, and certainly not of all “big box” churches either – Pentecostals and charismatics are a breed of their own.)

    Our own church is not really “charismatic” in that sense, though we are not anti-charismatic either. We don’t worship in that way, but we’re not going to tell other churches they’re wrong for doing so. Really, I think a lot of this (as you alluded to) has to do with personality and upbringing. Some people are just more comfortable in a more liturgical, contemplative service while others find they need to be more active, energetic, and expressive. Personally I think God just loves the diversity. He didn’t make us all to be the same (thank goodness!)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    My question was more towards how prevalent is this ‘Emerging Church’ theology or concept when compared to the more fundamentalist views (such as Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc..), but well said.

    That’s hard to answer too Robert as the EC doesn’t typically exist as a distinct entity apart from fundamentalist and evangelical churches yet. There are only a few hundred explicitly emerging churches like mine out there right now, but even my church is partnered with a small evangelical denomination that is open enough to allow us to exist underneath their banner. And most individuals involved in the emerging conversation are still within their more conservative churches, so identifying who is on board with these ideas and who is not is tricky. Some, like myself, have been kicked out of these churches for being too emergent, but many others are still there attempting to work for change from within.

    So anyhow, the short answer is I really don’t know yet. It’s too difficult to tell how prevalent this emerging mindset is or whether anything will come of it in the long term. On a good day I am convinced that it is the future of the church. On a bad day, I think that the majority of Christians just aren’t ready for it yet and that the whole project is just doomed to failure… but then I tend to have a very strong cynical side. ;)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I have another question and it’s trite, but I’m always curious as to the response: Why aren’t you Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or another religion?

    That’s not a trite question at all. It’s actually very good.

    The (far too) short answer is that I embrace what is good and true about all of those religions. I think God has been revealing himself to humanity in many ways. However, there are points about them that I reject as well, points that I don’t think resonate with Christ’s way of justice and love – Muslim attitudes towards women for instance, or the caste system in Hinduism just to name a few. (Though I should also mention that I would equally critique the unjust and unloving parts of the “Christian” religion as well – as many have said in the past, there is a difference between following Jesus and following Christianity.)

  • The Unbrainwashed

    That’s not a trite question at all. It’s actually very good.

    The (far too) short answer is that I embrace what is good and true about all of those religions. I think God has been revealing himself to humanity in many ways. However, there are points about them that I reject as well, points that I don’t think resonate with Christ’s way of justice and love – Muslim attitudes towards women for instance, or the caste system in Hinduism just to name a few. (Though I should also mention that I would equally critique the unjust and unloving parts of the “Christian” religion as well – as many have said in the past, there is a difference between following Jesus and following Christianity.)

    Ok so I understand what you’re saying, but your mention of God seems very vague to me. I’ve conversed with enough vague theists to understand what a belief in a supreme power that is commonly referred to as God entails. And you mirror that point in your post above. You also frame Jesus as a great role model as well.

    My question is in regards to your belief in the God as specified in the Bible and his son Jesus. Why do you believe in those dieties rather than those of another religion? Don’t you find it concidental that almost everyone follows the same religion as their parents. And doesn’t this seem at least a little indicative of cultural leanings rather than ultimate truth? Furthermore, if your answer is simply faith, I just can’t accept that. For someone as seemingly reasonable and able to engage in intellectual conversations, how can you simply give up all modes of skepticism because of a book that you yourself find fault after fault in (creationism, advocating intolerance, etc..)?

    I apologize for the long winded response, but your type of Christian (or related moderates in other religions) are the one group of people I just can’t understand. I’ve been “studying” religious belief for about two years since i became an atheist and I’ve begun to understand why it’s so prevalent. but what I don’t understand is how rational people like yourself can hold these viewpoints based only on faith. I doubt I’ll ever really understand it though.

  • http://www.agnosticatheism.wordpress.com HeIsSailing

    Thanks for the article, MikeC. I have heard of the Emergent Church, but being an old fart I can’t seem to keep up with what the young’uns are doing. From your description though, The Emergent Church sounds very similar in philosophy to The Jesus Movement of the late 60s early 70s. I guess these relgious movements are like political movements, in that they come and go in cycles.

    Is Miller’s ‘Blue Like Jazz’ representative of the Movement?

  • Tina B.

    What do you think of religion and politics, Mike?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    That was really inspiring! I’m an atheist, but I am glad to hear of what you are doing all the same. Your viewpoint sounds like it has considerable power to do good in the world.

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  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    From your description though, The Emergent Church sounds very similar in philosophy to The Jesus Movement of the late 60s early 70s. I guess these relgious movements are like political movements, in that they come and go in cycles.

    There are a lot of similarities, and some of the older members of the EC are folks who had been a part of the Jesus Movement and were disillusioned with the way it was eventually co-opted by evangelicals.

    Is Miller’s ‘Blue Like Jazz’ representative of the Movement?

    That’s a very popular book among many emerging folk, though theologically speaking Miller is kind of a lightweight. He’s sort of the Max Lucado of the emerging church (i.e. inspirational life stories but now with a more postmodern bent).

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    What do you think of religion and politics, Mike?

    Ummm, I’m in favor of both, though not always at the same time. :)

  • IAO

    I thought i will find something interesting on this site. Well, i was wrong. You should read St. Thomas and Augustin writings to know how fathers of Church explains the existence of evil, instead of arguing with what ‘some people’ said. For example, St. Thomas believed that ‘evil’ is simply ‘lack of good’ (i am not sure about translation, sorry for my english btw, but i am not a native speaker), so evil is not even a diffrent quality than good. It is more like imperfection put by God himself in His creation, which was ‘good’ not ‘perfect’, as we can read in bible. How can you be an atheist when your knowledge is so limited. How can you say that random accidents are ‘evil’? Evil is an intentional act. Accidents just happen because of laws of nature. They are not emanation of good or evil. Isn’t it obvious?

  • Pingback: Friendly Atheist » A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 4)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Hey IAO,

    I think you posted your comment on the wrong thread. You want the “Top 12 Excuses” thread next door.

    But thanks for dropping by! ;)

  • IAO

    Oh yes, sorry. Indeed you are a Friendly Atheist.

  • Pingback: Friendly Atheist » A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 5)

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