I didn’t know what to expect when an older gentleman spoke up at an emerging church conference. The speaker had asked, “What are you doing here? What is the issue you want to talk about?” The older man rose to his feet and said:
“Are we allowed to speak honestly?”
“I’m here because my three sons believe in Jesus and find the church totally indifferent. I’m 72 years old. I have six compatriots. We’ve produced 35 kids. They’re bright, reasonably intelligent. None of them disbelieves in Jesus; none of them has any time for the church.”
To be honest, I’m not sure I heard much of anything others said that day. But I can’t get what he said out of my mind.
The easiest way to react to this man is to say that he and his friends produced unspiritual children and they should get over it.
As a pastor, I invest lots of time in the church. I believe it is the bride of Christ, and that Christ gave himself for her. I find it easy to dismiss those who criticize the church.
As I thought about this man’s comments, however, I realized that he set an example for those who struggle with some of the current tensions in the church in Canada.
Alan Roxburgh, former pastor of churches in Toronto and Vancouver, writes in his recent book The Sky is Falling!?! that the church is facing a time of discontinuous, world-altering change. Our context, not the Gospel, has changed, and this has caused whitewater conditions for the church.
He argues that two tribes have formed in reaction. One tribe (“Liminals”) longs for the stability the church used to enjoy within culture. This group has difficulty understanding all the talk about changing contexts. Many within this group are quite critical of new movements such as the emerging church.
The other tribe (he calls them “Emergents”) is weary of fighting battles and has all but given up on existing church structures. People in this tribe question the institutional and archaic, and question what they perceive as out-dated denominations and lifeless congregations.
Roxburgh writes, “These two tribes live in the same new world and are trying to reach the same culture. They are like next-door neighbors with a high fence built between them independently trying to invite their other neighbors to different block parties being held on the same Saturday afternoon. In many ways, they want the same things, but refuse to put aside their differences to work together for similar challenges to achieve those parallel visions.”
Roxburgh argues that each tribe has the capacity to be a gift to the other. Unfortunately, both tribes tend to objectify and blame the other side for the shortcomings of the church, rather than talking and learning from each other.
Learning from the Other Tribe
The 72-year-old man at the conference belonged to the more traditional tribe, but out of love for his sons was trying to understand the concerns of the other tribe. I don’t think he fully understood or agreed with all of their concerns, but he admitted that the church needs help, and he was prepared to listen.
I’m convinced that those of us in the more traditional tribe can gain a lot from those Roxburgh calls Emergents. We don’t have to agree with all of their concerns or their theology. But their imagination, their restlessness, their adaptability, and even their critiques can be gifts to those of us who are more traditional – if we are prepared to listen.
Likewise, according to Roxburgh, the Liminals offer the Emergents gifts of “history, tradition, habits, capacities, and foundational theologies handed down to them through years of schooling and discipleship.” Both tribes need the other.
I’m not naive enough to think the two tribes will ever see the world the same way. I do hope, however, that more of us will follow the example of this 72-year-old man, and for the sake of the Gospel and the church lead the two tribes to dialogue and exchange gifts. If this happens, we just may discover what it means to be the church faithfully in a context that just won’t stop changing.