I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to post a piece I’ve been working on. But I guess that part of what the connversation blog is all about, putting your reflections out their for conversation, debate, and critique. Here goes…
Mere-catholicity: What’s blowing in the wind?
Within the next generation of pastors there is a trend to believe that less theological & ecclesiological fences equal more missiological growth. Some of us would see their trend and pass them over as chasing the fading popular values of their day. But I want to suggest to you that these leaders values of ‘less being the new more,’ what I call mere-catholicity; are a genuine manifestation of what one form of the next Christendom of the Post-Christian West will look like.
It would be wrong to say, as some have, that these emerging pastors are only motivated by “a kind of snobbery for the past that makes them appear cutting-edge in the eyes of the theologically illiterate.” Rather I want to propose to you that many of the younger, culturally savvy, nuance-in-love pastors have a tendency toward mere-catholicity because they are finding it to be a better missiological posture toward other Christian traditions as they reach out to their Post-Christian neighbors – many times inside urban environments, but not exclusive to urban environments. This trend of mere-catholicity is driven more by the spirit of their day changing their plausibility structures; that spirit’s deep rooted effects upon them while in seminary – their most formative theological incubation period; the death of an older, now bi-gone spirit; and because that spirit is fostering new ecclesiologies that are emerging in answer to the contextual needs of their ministries, as well as a new kind of Christian spirituality being fostered out of that spirit of their times.
You may be asking yourself, “what is the spirit of their day you’re referring to?” This new spirit is comprised of variegated responses to postmodern epistemologies, post-Christian missiological and ecclesial questions, as well as the widening of the worlds social conscience fostered by Globalism. “But how does this new spirit create new leaders?” One way is by changing what’s plausible for these emerging leaders.
The plausibility canopy we are increasingly living under
The ‘less is the new more’ mentality of the emerging pastors comes from a subtle but important shift in what they feel is plausible to believe about their faith, their churches, and their traditions. Their plausibility structures have shifted and what is open for doubt, conversation, and continual exploration by them has expanded because of this shift. Their attitude toward other Christian traditions is due more to the plausibility structures around them shifting than it is to what some have seen as their love for the novel, or hunger for the illiterate mobs’ adorations (though for some accumulating the mobs’ attention is unfortunately part of their agenda).
“What are plausibility structures,” you ask. The term comes from Peter Berger a noted sociologist of the 20th century. Cultural apologist Os Guiness relying on Berger’s work spells out what plausibility structures are, and why it is so important to realize their effect upon the communities of these emerging pastors.. Guiness says;
“…the degree to which a belief (or disbelief) seems convincing is directly related to its “plausibility structure” – that is, the group or community which provides the social and psychological support for the belief. If the support’s structure is strong, it is easy to believe; if the support’s structure is weak, it is difficult to believe.”
To raise the question of plausibility structures is to acknowledge the influence of our culture, and community upon us. These emerging pastors’ ecclesial community as well as their surrounding cultures’ influence are reminders to them that the Trinitarian image which humanity bore in its original creation is still retained even though people preside in a fallen state. The social value and nature of plausibility structures are part of that Trinitarian image humanity was created in relation to. Stated simply, humans bear as a hermeneutical necessity because of their creation in God’s image, the need to read and interpret things in community. The widening realization and affirmation of this is one of the reasons why mere-catholicity among this emerging group of pastors is becoming a desired way of relating to others.
These emerging pastors feel the need to relate to others around them, because as their denominations’ churches and related seminaries have grown so have their social support structure which has nurtured these pastors in their ministerial formation. Many of these younger pastors were not trained at the denominational seminary, Covenant Seminary, because of this they’ve had to learn to value the opinions and contributions of others. Through this they’ve found out that it’s possible for them to believe and affirm things beyond or counter to their own traditions and still hold their own tradition as their primary theologizing partner.
With the shift in plausibility structures or perhaps a better word would be expansion, comes the winds of change. The rest of this piece will look at a few of these winds.
The Fair Trade Trajectory
The first wind of change I’ve labeled, ‘The Fair Trade Trajectory’.
One of the most significant voices in the formation of the plausibility structures of our younger pastors is their seminary cultures that they’ve emerged from. I want to suggest that it is the local tone and trajectory of our next leaders seminaries that will play a larger part in their theological hermeneutic than the sentiments of our either our Presbyteries or the committee reports they produce. The hermeneutical structures our emerging pastors are impressed by most are from their seminary professors rather than their pastoral communities they’ve just recently entered; at least in the first season of their post-seminary community immersion and for some of them well beyond that immersion. You could call this ‘The Fair Trade Trajectory’ they drink in. Like so many of our local coffee café’s that praise the locally grown, fair trade supported brews, these next pastors will stay true to the locals over the ‘big bad corporate companies’ far off in GA land – at least until they need to candidate for another position somewhere other than their present church homes. What this means is that we must come to grips as a denomination with the fact that many of our emerging leaders are being trained by non-denominational seminaries, which hold both positive and negative effects on our ability to seek uniformity through committee reports on topics such as the NPP, FV, and AA. Such a pursuit of uniformity will continue to be splintered by the sometimes irenic, at other times cathartic moods and nuances of these emerging leaders professors whom they’d much rather trust than the distant reports and mediations of a GA judicial body.
In relation to this, part of the mere-catholicity of our emerging leaders is the perpetuation of their professors’ love for nuance. Nuance which provides room for a ‘safe-space’ of theological conversation where difference or even ‘in the moment’ articulations are not an immediate matter for discipline or ecclesial jurisprudence, but rather are an invitation for exploration and repeated conversation between affirmed and trusted friends. In this sort of conversation ‘theological machismo’ is simply not needed nor admired. “What is theological machismo,” you ask…
The Death of Theological Machismo
The second wind of change is the death of theological machismo.
‘Ancient-Future Faith’, ‘Generous Orthodoxy’, ‘Humble Orthodoxy’, and more claims the fame of having the ability to summarize our ages’ sentiments toward orthodoxy and its nature in the lives of our faith communities. Though they represent different streams of thought – ‘Ancient-Future Faith’ is the recently deceased missional guru Robert Webber’s ancient ecclesial restoration project, ‘Generous Orthodoxy’ is the ever racy Brian Mclaren’s popular answer of being all things to all people, and ‘Humble Orthodoxy’ is Sovereign Graces’ blog where they explore less of ‘what of orthodoxy’ is and more the ‘how of orthodoxy’ should be expressed – they all reflect signs of the death or swoon of what I call theological machismo.
“What is theological machismo,” you ask. Well first it is important to point out that machismo is not the biblical call for men to be masculine, which is good and in great need of development in our churches. “So what is it,” you ask again. Theological machismo can be seen as an attitude, a practice, and a way of maintaining community boundaries that belies humility;
Ø As an attitude theological machismo says, “I am right, you are wrong; and if you are right, I can find the same answer you have given inside my own tradition – therefore I don’t need you!”
Ø As a practice theological machismo is typically marked by a love for literature of one’s own tradition, and a disdain for literature of others traditions; particularly a love for polemical literature written by our traditions against the viewpoints of others.
Ø As a way of maintaining community boundaries theological machismo is marked by its desire to create fences within its own fences; to ‘out-masculinize’ ones closest neighbor thereby reminding him or her who they are not rather than who they are. To put it bluntly theological machismo is most delighted in itself when its boundaries are so defined that only a few can find harbor within them – it is a ‘remnant theology’, where man instead of God says these are the true children of Israel.
Over against this type of ethos our next pastors are finding mere-catholicity to be a better way of not only engaging those outside their own tradition, but also a better way to explore the rich valleys of diversity present inside their tradition. Mere-catholicity could also be described as an attitude, a practice, and a way of maintaining community boundaries which could grasped in a single word – humility.
Ø Particularly a humility that is be based on the attitude of complementary sharing of theological resources between different traditions.
Ø A humility that constructs theology in a way that embodies in practice Paul’s picture of the church as ‘one body of many members’.
Ø And a humility that believes that the only way to maintain ecclesial purity is by de-constructing more and more of social fences the modern church has thoughtlessly constructed between its own tradition, and those of the surrounding Christian traditions who are ‘of the household of faith’; while also re-constructing new fences that have side-doors to welcome in the foreign faces of today’s ever globalizing world in which the PCA makes up less than 5% of Protestant Christianity.
Indeed, the nature of mere-catholicity for our emerging pastors leads them to embody to others the ‘servant quality of the study of theology’ in a fashion that presents the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage found within the PCA exerting itself not just for its own community maintenance, but also with the hope of implanting theological nutrients into the soil of the wider body of Christ. While also glorying in the mutual dependence of being served by the nutrients of other traditions through humble theological conversations, mutual ministry outreaches together which take place in the shared social spaces where traditions converge within. Tendency’s toward mere-catholicity are leading these emerging pastors to repent from theological machismo, as a broken husband seeking forgiveness from his discarded wife, so to are our emerging pastors putting on the only garb they can as they re-approach their Christian neighbors: one of vulnerability, humility, and dependence upon all the traditions of Christ body – upon all the cultures within their own denominational community. This repentant act is so re-creative and resurrecting that out of the death of theological machismo arise new, refreshing adjectives for the nature of the church, as well as the nature of these emerging pastors Christian spirituality. One such adjective is Missional.
The Buzz of Being Missional
The third wind of change is Missional.
The king of the buzzword hill in evangelical Christianity today has to be this word Missional. That elusive, trendy Mac-like revolutionary that refuses to be boxed in by mere-functionality while also appearing to fit into any ecclesial model on the Protestant or Catholic landscape is what everyone is talking about. Be that John Piper, Tim Keller, or Joshua Harris everyone wants a piece of the savvy pie our younger generations are serving up. And whether they’re only for certain forms or shapes of it like Josh Harris, or against most of its features like John Piper, or trying to prophetically recapture the imagination of it like Tim Keller; they’re all engaging it. “What’s being Missional all about,” you ask. The word Missional because of its use, and popular forms is hard to tack down; but here’s a way to address it that I’ve found helpful. Missional can be used as both an adjective for defining one among many models of Post-Christian ecclesiology, thereby changing missions as something the church does to something the it is. Missional can also be used as an adverb to define a style of Post-Christian spirituality: A spirituality that can be expressed and experienced either individually or corporately; and is typically spoken in terms of ‘incarnational living,’ ‘following the way of Jesus,’ or pursuing a ‘spirituality of the road’.
No one has better captured what the elements of a Missional ecclesiology are than Tim Keller in his article, The Missional Church. Keller draws out five elements: (1) they discourse in the vernacular; (2) they enter and re-tell the cultures stories with the gospel; (3) they place emphasis on theologically training lay people for public life and vocation; (4) they create Christian community which is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive; and (5) they practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level. It is this last element of a Missional ecclesiology that is relevant to our discussion. Listen in as Keller unpacks it;
“In Christendom, when ‘everyone was a Christian’ it was necessary (perhaps) for a church to define itself over against other churches. That is, to get an identity you had to say, “we are not like that church over there, or those Christians over here.” Today, however, it is much more illuminating and helpful for a church to define itself over against ‘the world’–the values of the non-Christian culture. It is very important that we not spend our time bashing and criticizing other kinds of churches. That simply plays in to the common ‘defeater’ that Christians are all intolerant.””
Dr. Keller makes the point of setting the discussion of Missional ecclesiology into a Post-Christian context, thereby acknowledging that the social context of the church today has shifted. This shifting of the church’s social context signifies that the Church in the West, which was dominant in modernity, is now a minority at the global table (a table that also adds to the shifting of the plausibility structures of our emerging pastors). Mere-Catholicity as an attitude, practice, and way of maintaining community affords these emerging leaders with an answer to the “common ‘defeater’ that Christians are all intolerant.” A ‘defeater’ that needs to be answered if the church is going to be effective in the mission dei.
Not all pastors in the PCA notice the need to answer this defeater; Why? This is where it gets messy for the PCA as a denomination. There is a tension between the growth of our denomination and the decline or passing of Christianity in the West. This tension forms part of the strain our next leaders face in their relationships to their older, more senior pastors, as well as to their Presbyteries. This strain, is a strain between two plausibility structures – Traditional churches affected by more modernistic epistemological sentiments where their imagined or felt social consciousness still relies on the church as having a governing voice in the public square; and Missional churches affected by more postmodern epistemological sentiments where society has gone through the Post-Christian shift, and they don’t feel the need to be the only meta-narrative on the block, though they contend to the death that their meta-narrative is the divine meta-narrative.
The adjective Missional will likely have its day in the sun and end dried up in the field of other helpful, but not bygone categories, but the changing ecclesiology it sought to capture will remain until and if we experience the Southern Hemisphere shape of Christendom to come (spoken of by people like Philip Jenkins) expanding into the landscape of our Post-Christian West in a culturally transforming manner.
Missional as an adverb of spirituality places the emphasis on the missiological context of our individual and corporate spiritual pilgrimages in the Post-Christian West where growth happens as we go into the world rather than retreat inside our ecclesial cloisters, it is a ‘spirituality of the Road’ as David Bosch has argued. Not only are the plausibility structures of our next pastors changing, but they themselves seek to change the unbelieving plausibility structures around them by living out the realities of the Kingdom of God as one part of the new people He’s creating in the world, socially and politically incarnating the presence and personage of Christ, while reaching out to un-webbed communities as the new people in union with Christ (this has been explored by people like Darrell Guder).
Conclusion: ‘Conversational confessionalism’ – Vintage threads for post-everything times
Is it possible to promote a ‘safe-space’ for theological conversation carried out in the spirit of mere-catholicity in our churches without opening the door to either cultural accommodation or theological compromise? A ‘safe-space’ conversation where the missional labors of the emerging leaders of our churches will not be suspiciously scrutinized for their lack of confessional literacy or appeal; where questions marks are placed on their epistemic accommodations before they speak; and inquiries are manufactured by ecclesial tribunals to explore their assumed narratival neurosis’s? I believe so, but it’s not enough to raise the question of, can change be welcomed.
These younger emerging pastors must ask themselves can their inherited or adopted tradition be maintained thoughtfully and honestly as they seek to be faithful to their Post-Christian contexts. Will they abandon the classics for ‘chick-tract’ theologically shaped innovations, while stepping over the bodies of their father’s polemical labors in estrangement to the dangers their father’s felt, only to stock up on the collapsible IKEA social conventions of their times? Will they ignore the Standards of old Tradition, only to find themselves’ putting on a false sense of relevancy, a Standard of their new Missional proclivities out of conversation with the past? I believe they can absolve themselves from this, that mere-catholicity as a way of maintaining community actually governs them away from this sort of reaction.
There is a way out of this dilemma but it will require the “long obedience” of discipleship modeled by men like Eugene Peterson; a bold, daring, and risk-taking obedience – a humble obedience. These times require a theology that abides in contextual conversation with these emerging pastors Post-Christian setting, as well as a theology that is in chastened-agreement with Westminster Standards. What would such a theology be called, well how about Conversational Confessionalism: A vintage thread for a post-everything times. Where the very curvature of these emerging pastors convictions provoke interest, intrigue, and imagination in the minds and cultural landscapes of their neighbors; while the threading retains the fibers of vigor and truth, the Westminster Standards were meant to cloth them with…
http://www.redeemer2.com/resources/papers/missional.pdf. For a different look at the missional church, see Darrell L. Guder’s edited volume, The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Ed Stetzers’ book, Planting Missional Churches. Craig Van Gelders’ book, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A community led by the Spirit. Or Earl Creps, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual adventures of missional leaders.
Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The coming of global Christianity and The Next Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the global South.