I’m not sure we are postmodern (2004)

Presented to the BIC Study Conference, March 5, 2004

Instead of writing a “modern” paper about how the BIC might love people in a postmodern era, I decided to be somewhat “postmodern” in my approach to the discussion. What follows is something like the style of dialogue we might experiment with as Circle of Hope. – Rod White

I was happy to agree to make this presentation because I knew it would make me sit down and write out what I think. Is needing to be made to sit down and write out what I think “postmodern?” If so, then maybe I know something about the topic of the day.

On February 18 there was an article in the NY Times titled: “Hip New Churches Pray to a Different Drummer.” So, of course, one of my friends e-mailed it to me. They love to tweak me, since I am none too hip or very new, for that matter, but people think I pastor one of those hip, new churches. When I think of a different drummer, I think Thoreau, Scott Peck and I even quoted Linda Rongstadt in her Stone Ponies era last week in the Public Meeting. “You and I travel to the beat of a different drum” – I was honing in on the line, “I ain’t sayin you ain’t pretty, I’m saying, I’m not ready for any person place or thing to try to pull the reins in on me.” I was talking about the bondage of what people think is freedom these days.

  • Is channeling media and sampling old stars postmodern?
  • Is thinking “drummer” and going through your mind like it is Google and thinking that the random things that come up kind of go together postmodern?
  • Is refusing to have a Sunday morning anything and never something called a “service,” only a “Public Meeting,” postmodern?

If so, maybe I know something about that.

But I don’t know. The article the guy sent me was intended to send shivers up and down my spine, no doubt, in a funny-bone kind of way, since he knows that I am befuddled by all the people who call me wanting to study the emerging church. I think when they call, “How did you find me and why did you want to?” I don’t want to be rude, but I want to say, “No, I am not part of the emerging church. No we are not postmodern. No we don’t want you to print any articles about us. No I don’t want to fit into your study’s analytic scheme so you can put me back under the modernism microscope and define who I am and make me correlate to an ’ ism’ or a marketing niche.” The article my friend sent mentioned Brian McLaren, whose books I can’t get through, so I have not read very much of him. It mentioned Chris Seay, who I have met, and who is great at getting articles published. It even mentioned Scum of the Earth in Denver – a church to which three people who are in Circle of Hope used to be connected.

  • Is not caring about what best-selling authors are saying postmodern?
  • Is having a vague interest in people who aren’t in one’s immediate relationships postmodern?

If so, maybe I could be studied. Or maybe I should just be disciplined.

I think I could make a fairly intelligent speech like Eric Seibert assigned, “analyzing the current situation,” as if it were foreign and as if I were not in it. I think I could talk about “postmodernism,” as if anyone actually believes in it like an ideology or a philosophy. I think I could see how this development “impacts the way Sunday morning worship services” are conducted, as if Sunday morning were the standard and the term “worship services” makes any sense at all. But I think I will tell a few stories about what we are doing and then close with why I still think the BIC are among the best people to do it with, but that’s if we don’t lose our salt.

I don’t mean to be too flip when I dismiss the idea of naming what God is doing “emerging” or when I poke at people who want to talk about postmodernism like it is a persona to adopt or a market to exploit or an ideology to fight. I am merely exercising a tendency to think that smart people who do such things should be out plowing good straight rows for planting disciples and churches, rather than assessing how others are doing it or evaluating how we used to do it. The time is short.

I don’t think about being emerging or postmodern when I struggle with ministry to the many gay people in my neighborhood or the few in the congregation. I finally spoke a message one time about “Why We Don’t Have a Gay Policy,” since nearly all the gay people who made a relationship wanted to know if we were “friendly” or not. I tell them that our understanding of God’s work in every situation is somewhat provisional and always relational, so we don’t make policies about people. We deliver good news, person to person, in love. So off the top of my head, I know we are walking with a couple of closeted, celibate men. We have watched a couple of men leave their wives to live with their lovers and been there for the aftermath. And we have had a couple of women toying with being lesbians, one who is dating a musician who is on tour right now.

I don’t think about being emerging or postmodern when I promote a dispersed leadership among a multiplicity of relatively anarchic cell groups. People sometimes ask me, “Why doesn’t Circle of Hope have any elders? How is the discipline meted out?” I often ask, “What are you talking about? This is the most accountable church you’ve ever been in. There is a 1-10 ratio of leader to led.” They don’t usually note that. They are more likely to notice that we have sort of internalized a generational disdain for large systems that are run by power-protecting old men. In our network of 30 or so cells, we only have 3 leaders over 40, and I am one of them. My wife, Gwen, is another. 16 of them are under 30. 43% are women. They are not all put together. Our “elders” are rather unprofessional. A man who was once my apprentice Cell Leader, Joshua Grace, is now the 25-year-old pastor of our newest congregation, brought to you by the Atlantic Conference BIC — God bless their loving and risking hearts! On the other hand, one of my former Cell Leader apprentices married a dysfunctional North Korean while serving in China and dropped out of life altogether.

I don’t think about being emerging or postmodern when I organize the teaching in the congregation. We are a body full of teachers; gifted people rise up and get larger recognition all the time. We are not gathered around a talking head who gives the others their talking points for the week. (although that might allow for some helpful consistency!). I think a lot of young churches these days claim to be “postmodern” because they are full of niche consumers of new hip brands of the same old church stuff. They opened the doors to more media, more savvy product, better graphics, no dress code, louder music. This is all good and I think it appeals to the mainstream out there who can’t ever see themselves submitting to more guilt-inducing lectures from dubiously qualified lecturers who are backed up by secret boards sponsoring worn-out traditions. But I’m not sure the new brand really allows room to meet the new age we are entering. Is merely changing your label postmodern or just good capitalism? I’m not sure it is Christian.

So far, I am kind of content to bump along as a Brethren in Christ rather than being emerging or postmodern. (But let’s change the name and merge with a couple of other little groups). We have a few things in our DNA that I have always thought are well-suited to meet the challenges of our day. But we also have a trend going that might make us rather ineffectual.

I live among some hard-core, post-Christian unbelievers. For instance, in my cell there are a couple of young guys who have almost no knowledge of what being a Christian is. One of them said he thought he could never be a Christian before he met us because he thought Christians didn’t care about people, they just wanted to go to war and hold up antiabortion signs in front of Planned Parenthood. Another started his search when he had a mystical, Damascus Road, kind of experience when he was getting into a taxi and through further bizarre circumstances got led to the church. You are probably trying to reach people like this, too. Overcoming the sins of the church as it was captive in modern philosophy, and meeting the spacey spirituality that is floating around takes time, it takes staying power. I like saying my church has been in PA since the 1780’s. And I like saying that we’ve never really been mainstream; that’s why we are so small.

  • We didn’t do very well with the enlightenment project, never really bought in fully. And we never really bought totally into all the other movements that came along.
  • We have a kind of a stubborn staying power, a “brethren mindset” intuition that gives us some gravity.
  • We don’t follow whims of doctrine (even when people try to get us all “purpose driven”).
  • We’ve always had to rely on character, not charisma. We’ve been more likely to say, “Come and see,” rather than use clever arguments.

This appeals to another young guy, who read every mystical work on the internet in between getting loaded before he reached bottom and met one of our people – he needed to see authentic people to become a Christian last year. Heather fully believes Aldous Huxley’s view of the god behind all the religions – but she is drawn by her boyfriend’s connection to people who say they know Jesus. Karen might have blown away after her divorce if she had just received the word and not the community.

What’s more, as Brethren in Christ, I don’t think we’ve ever really taken the easy way (although some of our present approach to church planting calls for instant church). I don’t think easy ways are going to work these days, although I pray the wind of the Spirit makes it easy. We’ve been a stubborn, head-covering wearing, holiness seeking, community-keeping people in our past. We maintain hard things like missions, planting churches, being peacemakers, creating an urban mission center in New York, and holding on to our seat at MCC’s table. I think this is a great gift to this era. At our congregation in Germantown the other day, Bryan Robinson had a conversation with a small group of African American seminary students who are nosing around our work there. He thought he would be driving them away when he told them to, “Commit or stop clogging up the works with your transience.” But they shocked him by saying that is exactly what they intended to do. They could not go back to the old-school church and do it the easy way. They wanted to plant something new and authentic with Bryan, even if they risked gunshots. We have a lot of radicals in BIC history who influenced us to be open to the inventive ways of the Bible. This is very attractive and powerful. In an increasingly disordered era we are well-suited to be a people who are God-ordered. I think we have been much better at that than at being rationally-ordered or market-ordered.

With all this subversive sounding talk we’ve had today, I think it bears repeating that most Christians and churches will do fine for quite a while in the U.S. just living off the fat of the American empire, which is the apex of the modern period — providing Christians services and getting paid. The former church will last well after I’m dead. The BIC could toddle along with the vast majority who are just going with the old flow right now. But the BIC’s only rationale for existence, as far as I can tell, is that we have never really effectively been that way. Which is why I have been somewhat befuddled by the advertising for the Atlantic Regional Conference this year. Now granted, I don’t really know what is going to happen on March 27. All our business will be conducted on the Friday evening before. So essentially, we don’t have much for delegates to do. Then Saturday we are having a five-hour celebration. I received ads pre-designed for me to use to target niches in my congregation. I received a very attractive and ambiguous invitation that reads “A party in your honor.” Honestly, I’d say it is the most postmodern thing I have been welcomed into this year! — much more postmodern than Circle of Hope! I am not making this up. Here is some of what it says: [reads the flyer]. One of my young friends is actually writing a novel right now about a future era in which people will be so enthralled by the spiritual nature of advertising that actual products become utilitarian again and advertising becomes the product people will buy! Could our conference be the harbinger of that? I’m not sure I want to sell-out to individualized, contentless, experience-oriented, hype-based, virtual community. I’m not afraid of the post-modern era; I think it has great advantages for the gospel. But I don’t want to become it any more than I wanted to become the last worldly philosophy that got floated.

We have been such a both/and kind of denomination all along, I don’t think we need to cave in, now and just become “and” – more of the same vacuity that people are eating like candy and expelling just as quickly. The conference should not be a consumable for people who can’t be trusted with the Spirit of God. I’m finding that our traditions of mutuality and community, straight-forward, non-systematic readings of the scripture, our Episcopal/Presbyterian and congregational mix in our structures, the remnant of big-tent discussions that require love, our peace, advocacy and mission witness that cross borders are all quite attractive. People are fond of noting that the BIC are often 20-years-behind-the-times in adopting things we shouldn’t have adopted from the culture. That would make us about ready to follow the lead of Three’s Company, the old sitcom featuring John Ritter, who recently died unexpectedly. On the show, Jack pretended he was gay so he wouldn’t be criticized for living with two women. Let’s not adopt that model. I don’t think we have to pretend we are hip, promising a day of extreme makeovers for children birth to sixth grade, only to have people find out that underneath it all we still like to go to Roxbury Camp, or we still want to plant another church, or we are still devoted to a radical interpretation of the Bible. Before Howard Dean discovered he could network via the internet, we were networked. Before he discovered that you still had to have content, even if you were a whiz as networking, we knew that. Before vodka tasters came to Philly last year to invade bars and talk to people, stool to stool, about whatever new vodka they loved, and were hyping in an incarnational, relational way, we knew about that and sent people to Africa, even, to do it.

So I end up being most interested in answering Eric’s last question for us presenters. What elements of the Anabaptist tradition can be of particular value for ministering to postmodern people and how might clergy capitalize upon these?” I’m not sure what makes you think we are Anabaptist, or whether anyone thinks they are postmodern, or who considers themselves clergy. Perhaps questioning all those things makes me postmodern. But I also think it makes me BIC. I like that. What I like best about us is that we have always traveled to the beat of a different drum from the main stream. I’d rather not pull the reins in on that, because I do, indeed, think it is pretty. And it is proving quite attractive to people I know who need to know and grow in Jesus, refugees from postmodernism and the modern church alike.

One thought on “I’m not sure we are postmodern (2004)

  1. I’m glad you posted these articles, Rod.
    “be out plowing good straight rows for planting disciples and churches, rather than assessing how others are doing it or evaluating how we used to do it”-
    That’s just plain sense in any era.

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