This last spring, I had the opportunity to speak at the Association of Theological Schools “SPAN” conference for administrators. They asked me to speak about the changes in the American/British church scene that I wrote about in the book “Emerging Churches”, a book I co-wrote with Fuller professor Eddie Gibbs.
My talk addressed the need for seminaries to be transformed if they are to continue to serve the needs of churches in the Twenty-first century. As I spoke, I realized that Fuller has already made many of these changes and is well suited to partner with emerging churches in the future.
For me, the conversation on the emerging church and Fuller started in a little conference room located in Glasser Hall, one of the older converted homes on the Fuller campus, back in thee mid-nineties. About five to ten of us would have a “brown-bag” lunch weekly. Some were Masters students, such as myself, and Barry Taylor, some were doctoral students, and some were professors: Wilbert Shenk and Eddie Gibbs. The conversation always strayed to conversations about how the church must adapt in the coming few years.
Wilbert Shenk, the instigator of the meeting, suggested the subversive idea, brought over from England and Lesslie Newbigin in the early nineties, that the West functioned as a mission field: that the church ought to see its surrounding cultures in the same way as good missionaries do. Eddie Gibbs brought his deep understanding of everyday church life to the meetings; Eddie had recently penned “In Name Only”, the classic text on nominality, and was working on a subsequent book, “Churchnext”.
In the 1990s, there were very few examples of churches that were communicating within the perspectives and practices of new urban cultures. More typically at that time, the strategy consisted of making the church service relevant to outsiders: play the right music and light the right candles and they will come. However, in our collective experience at our lunch in Glasser Hall, the trendy service didn’t solve the problem. Instead it revealed deeper problems in the church.
At the same time that many church leaders were asking themselves if the problem in the Western church was simply a generational one, we at Fuller, in our little room in Glasser Hall, were asking the same questions. Perhaps, instead of a generational shift in the church, we were experiencing a cultural shift? In 1998, the so-called ‘Gen-X’ churches began a move to ‘postmodern’ understandings of church, rather than generational. However, the cultural shift was only the beginning. After a couple of years, towards the year 2000, we realized that culture language only got the church so far, that postmodern culture needed a positive response from within that culture. We realized, through the help of many scholars of the day, that it was the kingdom of God, or in mission terms, the missio Dei, that was the missing ingredient in church life. At the same time, emerging churches were asking themselves the same questions.
In the year 2000, the emerging movement got its start. Characterized by
a renewed focus on the life of Christ, emerging churches clung to the
gospels as a pattern for church life within urban cultures. In 2004, we
at Fuller hosted the first think-tank for emerging leaders to discuss
the challenges of working with entirely new forms of church, churches
dedicated to living out the Sermon on the Mount in new contexts.
Overcoming the sacred/secular split has been a huge concern for emerging churches. They desire to see the world become a spiritual place through their activities in it. Conversely, they desire their worship to become more ‘worldly’ – more connected to everyday cultural practices, shedding God’s light on them.
We at Fuller were wonderfully situated to contribute to the cultural question. In a bold move, Fuller hired Donald McGavran in 1965 to found the School of World Mission, the first of its kind. The school’s first hired professor was an anthropologist, Alan Tippett. However, it wasn’t just the School of World Mission that understood culture to be paramount, other spheres of Fuller addressed cultural issues as well.
Our current president, Richard J. Mouw, serves as an ambassador to the culture, speaking about redeeming all levels of culture – even the local Burger King. In addition, the Brehm Center, through a focus on music, film, TV, and the arts, takes full advantage of living adjacent to LA/Hollywood. Brehm runs the gamut from fine arts to popular culture, and represents the kind of holistic approach to culture advocated by the emerging church.
Emerging churches place a high value on community. The community precedes church – no community, no church. At Fuller, I see some of these high levels of connection in our cohort groups and online programs. In these endeavors, students meet at least weekly with their peers, sharing and praying together. In our online program, that intensity deepens as they form a learning community that builds on the spiritual community. The pedagogy shifts as the peers teach each other, all the while being mentored by the professor. When Fuller seizes the moment to create mini-learning/spiritual communities, it embodies the type of ministry that the emerging church craves, thus resembling a neo-monastic model of ministry.
Emerging Churches place a great emphasis on hospitality. They create space for the other, be it at home, a coffee place, or school. They want to hear the thoughts and opinions of those different from them. They pursue those of other faiths and traditions – simply to listen and learn. Some entire emerging churches have been trained by monasteries to learn how to create space for the other.
When I heard of this practice, I immediately thought of the kind of evangelicalism we practice at Fuller. Rather than focus on our differences with others, thus objectifying and distancing them, Fuller walks with other traditions, whether that be Mormons, Jews, or Muslims. We focus on similarities, discussing our common histories and perspectives. We establish relationship with others. At that point, when the other has become a friend, we discuss our very real differences. But it is done in love, with a friend, rather than with a caricature of someone we don’t really know.
The emerging church values holism in regard to social justice and evangelism. They weave together words and works in such a way that one does not exist without the other. One is simply the spoken version of the physical reality. At Fuller, we practice such a holistic faith. Both social justice and the proclamation of the word are explored and discussed in our classes. We do not create a hierarchy; we practice a holistic evangelism, where word and works are united.
Emerging churches facilitate high levels of participation and creativity for their members. In a youtube culture, identity is formed through what we create. For something to transform us, we need to physically participate in its creation. At Fuller, I think of our internship programs and practica. These give students the opportunities to practice the cognitive and affective changes they experienced in class. Flexible programs allow students to participate in their course design at a deep level as well. Some courses experiment with service learning options, giving students the opportunity to participate in transformation in really practical ways.
Emerging churches practice the priesthood of all believers. They question the elevation of some gifts over others. They desire to see different leaders minister at different levels. Fuller, through its many different degree programs, gives opportunity for multiple avenues to training, not necessarily tracks focused on future pastors. This makes sense as more communities move away from the one-person-per church-seminary-trained model. With its breadth of programs, Fuller serves this constituency well.
Emerging churches practice historic forms of spirituality. In addition to practicing the Eucharist weekly, they often pray the hours and participate in the Christian calendar. Fuller is in a good place in regard to practicing the tradition -- because of its mainline roots, Fuller’s brand of evangelicalism is rooted in historic practices. These traditions are reinvigorated each year as Fuller practices the Christian calendar.
As I wrapped up my discussion on the emerging church at the ATS seminar, I became so grateful to be teaching at Fuller. I work within a community that serves the church today – and tomorrow.
Here are a couple of my classes for Fall 2008...