Smashing Stereotypes

Last night, I visited a church in Rochester, Minnesota. Apart from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester is small town America. But, because of Mayo, it’s also growing.

As is to be expected, the large and evangelical church, First Baptist, sold its plot in the city and moved to the “suburbs” of Rochester — a host of new subdivisions, surely inhabited by well-heeled docs. There they built a state-of-the-art mega-church facility. They changed their name to Autumn Ridge Church. And you can find nary a word of their denominational affiliation on their website or in their literature.

This is the very kind of church that liberal Christians bewail. They’re all Republicans, right? And they care only about saving souls. Or maybe they are involved in the Big Two social issues: ending abortion and a gay marriage ban.

Right?

Wrong.

Last weekend, they spent three days raising awareness about and mobilizing people to end the genocide in Dafur. They hosted (friend of Emergent Village) Celestin Musekura, the president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) and survivor of the Rwandan genocide. He was on a panel discussion on Friday night and preached on Sunday. And he was there last night when the church screened The Devil Came on Horseback — a new film about Darfur. And the worship center was packed.

There was nary a word about salvation. Only a call to get involved with stopping the genocide, writing congressional members, even joining a relief trip to Darfur early next year. I then spoke to the college group about the meaning of “the gospel” after viewing a film like that. They were a sharp and articulate bunch.

Honestly, it’s encounters like that that keep me grounded in this truth: there is little truth in stereotypes. Had Marcus Borg been there last night, he wouldn’t have been able to caricature evangelicals like I heard him do in May at the National Cathedral. The fact is, mega-church evangelicals are just as complex and paradoxical as inner-city Episcopalians. They all come by their beliefs and convictions honestly, and with integrity. Too often, it’s their national spokespersons who fulfill the stereotypes.

(Now, the trick will be not caricaturing anyone in my forthcoming book on the emergent phenomenon. I’m sure I’ll fall short. And I’m sure that the blogosphere will let me know where.)

P.S. Another friend of Emergent, Bob Pyne, recently joined the staff at ALARM.

P.P.S. I was in a carpool to 9th Grade Confirmation class with writer/producer/director of The Devil Came on Horseback, Annie Sundberg. We were also classmates at Dartmouth.

P.P.P.S. Celestin recently completed his Ph.D. at Dallas Seminary, and Miroslav Volf was one of his readers. Congrats, Celestin!

  • spankey

    “The fact is, mega-church evangelicals are just as complex and paradoxical as inner-city Episcopalians. They all come by their beliefs and convictions honestly, and with integrity. Too often, it’s their national spokespersons who fulfill the stereotypes.”Amen Tony. Thanks for another great post.

  • Robert Pyne

    Tony,Thanks for the kind words about ALARM, Celestin, and even the mention of my move! Your post points to one of the most enjoyable aspects of my transition from seminary teaching to ALARM. Theology should be unifying, but in an academic setting it is more often divisive. We explore differences, define boundaries, and express concerns. I have to say that I have grown tired of concerns. The kind of event you participated in last week reminds us that together we are a part of something greater as ministers of reconciliation and co-laborers in the kingdom of God. Networking is much more invigorating than fence building!Bob

  • Andy

    A thought-provoking post, but I beg to differ concerning the ability to apply the “evangelical” label, along with its typical “stereotypes,” to various churches like Autumn Ridge, even if they are “emergent.”Individual members of Autumn Ridge may be “complex and paradoxical,” but on the whole it seems logical that if they are members, they would tend to stand by the belief statement posted on the church’s website. In typical evangelical fashion, it highlights the idea of biblical inerrancy, the masculine gender of God, and the salvific exclusivity of Jesus made possible through the vehicle of substitutionary atonement.Why call out Marcus Borg when he, along with other historians, has led the way in logically characterizing such beliefs as inherent to both the historical and contemporary theological paradigm of most “evangelicals”?It’s great to see an evangelical church like Autumn Ridge getting involved in social causes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that “evangelical” churches like it have typically, until within the last decade, been less involved in such causes than other mainline-affiliated churches or communities of people of other faith traditions.Individual evangelicals may come at their beliefs with as much honesty and integrity as the next person, but that doesn’t necessitate that they believe something different than what most evangelicals have historically tended to believe, or ceased to be involved with causes evangelicals typically highlight and champion. They may not all be Republicans, but most probably remain strong believers in the exclusivity of Jesus, and approach the Bible with an attitude framed by the idea of inerrancy. And they may care about a wider range of moral and ethical issues now, but most probably feel the same way (and with the same strength of conviction) about abortion and homosexuality as they typically have.The fact, indeed, is that people like Borg do generalize about (rather than “stereotype”) certain groups of Christians like evangelicals. But those generalizations have held up–and continue to hold up–under scrutiny, because those groups continue to exhibit such traits, especially in terms of core doctrinal beliefs.There is “little truth in stereotypes” of individuals, yes. But there is indeed truth in intelligently and logically framed characterizations of various groups like “evangelicals” as it pertains to their beliefs, because in their truth they help us begin to learn about and understand such groups better, if only at an introductory level.

  • Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Well said, Tony. You prove yourself far more generous than many have been you with you and EV.Peace,Jamie

  • Charles

    Your comments raise a question for me:If the “spokespersons” are off, then why do they still remain in place? Either these “complex” folk have a failure of courage and conviction to publicly and forcefully disavow the rhetoric of their spokespersons OR there’s still an overwhelming majority that identify with the rhetoric. Either choice is a problem.I’ve never heard this properly addressed or discussed anywhere. I just hear about the chronic “embarrassment” of these incredibly complex people when they hear the ham handed (i.e.typical) approach to culture by evangelical leaders. But the donations still roll in to certain national figures that we could all do without.It seems though that to honestly point these things out is now considered “ungenerous” by some. I’m glad Autumn Ridge did their Darfur thing and were receptive to you, Tony. That’s a good thing. But I wonder if that’s just Autumn Ridge and maybe a few other churches…Maybe that receptivity will start to be the norm rather than the exception considering the hostility of the last few years. At the same time, I hope people aren’t going to be “let off the hook” if they merit critique. It seems to me there’s been some back pedaling in the emergent community when it comes to dialogue with evangelicals. Could this post be perceived as throwing a bone to “evangelicals” so they know the EC “really still likes them”?

  • Theolibri

    Could this post be perceived as throwing a bone to “evangelicals” so they know the EC “really still likes them”?Oh, I think there’s little fear of that. The EC folk have been quite clear, even in this thread, about the disdain with which they regard Evangelicals.

  • Charles

    Theolibri,RE: Disdain for evangelicals.It doesn’t feel good when you’re on the receiving end of your own behavior. Instead of evangelical leaders whining, they should look in a mirror. And to be clear, honest critique is not the fingerpointing, “disfellowshipping that has been leveled at the EC.I was born into and raised in the evangelical stream. “Scorn” is the operative word for the tenor of its cultural engagement–for mainliners that are all put in the “liberal” box, for the elusive, but politically useful “Hollywood”, for pretty much anything that didn’t reflect North American middle class social respectability. Combine that with an identity that has been shaped as being “the persecuted faithful” and you end up with a study in irony considering the political power that is exercised by this group.If you sense disdain, I would suggest what you sense is an inability to countenance the hypocrisy of those that claim to be protectors of “genuine” Christianity and the clear message that many of us are willing to walk away, rather than be subjected to the damaging effects of such power oriented “faith”. If being a good Christian means I have to get on the wagon with certain folks and their political agenda and their incessant need to demonize people, then I don’t want to be a Christian.

  • Theolibri

    Charles,Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.Coram Deo, brother.

  • Morgan

    Tony, not an attack but a question. You stated that Autumn Ridge was ‘not all about the salvation of souls’ (paraphrasing you) but, rather, social justice in Darfur. Coming from a traditional Baptist background, I’m confused as to what you would articulate the “gospel” to be? If you don’t mind, please let me know…figuringthingsout@gmail.com

  • Existential Punk

    Are you and your family ok with regards to the bridge collapse? Adele

  • Catullus Theologicus

    There was nary a word about salvation.“SWEET!! Thank God those Christians weren’t talking about salvation — that silly, outdated category….wait. I’m confused. Why is this a good thing?

  • Beloved

    Tony,THANK YOU! It’s about time a well-respected Emergent leader stuck his neck out amidst sure attacks from the far-Left to paint a fair and charitable picture of certain pockets of ‘conservatives’. Certainly most EC leaders would recognize Bob Webber as having been a prominent ‘emerging’ voice, and his book The Younger Evangelicals is extremely helpful in caricaturing these ‘atypical conservatives’.I’m persistently grieved by the fact that supposed brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ make the most of every opportunity to slander those with differing views than themselves amidst a plea such as this one for mutual respect and ethical dialogue. I also continue to be fascinated by the wide spectrum of manifestations of the emergent movement. It’s obviously not exclusively (or even predominantly, for some) an ecclesiastical or missional movement, but also an epistemological and theological one. For the more liberal crowd, it’s not nearly enough that conservatives start living out the Gospel holistically and incarnationally. They want us to abandon the foundational paradigm of our faith. Nothing short of this will appease their seething. And for hardline fundamentalists, words like ‘intentional community’, ‘contextualization’, and ‘all truth is God’s truth’ continue to invoke their disdain. I wish–and sincerely hope–that more people begin to understand and appreciate the fact that ‘social gospel’ and ‘propositional gospel’ do not have to be at odds. In fact, it’s my earnest conviction that if you err to the extreme of either side, you have neither–no gospel at all.On that note, Andy, belief in the exclusivity of Jesus as God and Savior is the fundamental tenet of genuine Christian identity. If you don’t want to be an ‘only Christ’ Christian, then pick another religion that suits you better. No offense, but there are genuine and stark differences in religions. They ought to be appreciated rather than watered down and blurred together, not just for the sake of Christianity, but the other religions as well.-Grace

  • Beloved

    Tony,In response to your forthcoming blog on the Minneapolis disaster, I’d like to make a humble request. Would you be willing to listen to the audio of the full sermon John Piper gave from which excerpts were overdubbed on the YouTube video? It was given September 11, 2005. Click here to read the transcript or download the mp3. I highly recommend listening rather than reading.

  • Charles

    beloved,I don’t understand the characterization of the “left” as seething…it sounds like a word used by talk radio hosts to make it sound like their opponents are whiners who are all ready to stab “the righteous” in the back.As a person who holds to a historic orthodoxy the only things that bother me about evangelicals (a community from which I come) is the tendency to engage culture by poking fingers in people’s eyes, verbally kicking them in the shins, defending the behavior in the name of God and then whining about persecution when rightly criticized for…their methods. If consciously done, it’s a brilliant strategy to seethe, be uncharitable and then accuse those who point it out as being guilty of the same. Otherwise it’s just unconscious manipulation and a great “case in point” for the total depravity some seem to be obsessed with pointing out every chance they get…as long as it’s not about themselves. In defense of so called “seething”:Hypocrisy and power grasping in the name of God SHOULD inspire seething…it’s the lead up to righteous anger. And that’s totally different than being angry just simply because somebody won’t repeat any given doctrinal formulation using the exact same words as you or me.But this is hard to understand by a group who, despite their great cultural/political power, want to shape their own group identity as being the “persecuted, inferior minority”…If you can convince people that they are under attack from just about everyone and everything in their comfortable middle class churches, OR convince them that they are being hurt by people they don’t even bother to know and their private choices made in their own bedrooms then you can tap into a deeply broken source of motivation–fear, greed and rage. Even if the end game is “right” in principle, the attitudes/methods make God’s truth a lie in the eyes and ears of those watching.And that is deserving of constant, heavy and unswerving critiqe and rebuke.

  • Beloved

    I hoped I had provided a balanced critique as well as avoiding outright bashing. One of my main observations, with which I was concerned, was that the discourse emanating from people on both the extreme Right and Left is far too often ‘seething’. I wasn’t primarily referring to the responders to this post (though I sure got that feeling from Andy). Stated bluntly, I am indignant at the fact that all of us are not more charitable towards one another than we are, that whenever someone (such as Tony here) speaks positively about someone with whom we typically disagree, we are on the edge of our seats waiting to tear them back down. The same thing happens in Right-wing fundamentalist circles (amidst which I am also the brunt of much scrutiny).I was/am not trying to condescend or start a ‘war’, but rather pleading for charitable and open-minded/hearted dialogue rather than name calling and stereotyping. Tony’s post was a step in the right direction, and I lauded that.

  • Don

    Ha! I was all set to write a post about how Rochester is NOT small town America, how it was a great post but a misplaced stereotype of the city (1 million+)… Then I realized Mayo was in Rochester MINNESOTA! Ha ha ha…

  • Anonymous

    Tony – Interesting post. I’m happy to hear about their Darfur work, but I hope that they don’t forget the American genocide that has so far mudered 32.5 million unborn babies since 1973. I’m happy to hear that they are missional, but I hope that they don’t forget that one can be as missional as they come and one day find themselves eternally separated from God.I’m happy to hear that the congregation is complex and paradoxical, but I hope that they don’t forget that the foundation of marriage is a wonderful, simple design arranged by the Father for His people and that anything that contradicts this design will bring about chaos (true in every ancient civilization to-current). Tread lightly TJ!Tony (TA)


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