by Roger Oakland
Understand the Times
Perhaps we as Christians today are not only to consider what it means to be a 21st century church, but also and perhaps more importantly–what it means to have a 21st century faith.1–Doug Pagitt
Emergent church leaders often provide testimonies explaining how they became involved in their journey to reinvent Christianity. In his book Church Re-Imagined, Doug Pagitt tells how and why his church originated:
Our attempt at being a church began in January 2000 in a small second-floor loft space in a hip little neighborhood of Minneapolis called Linden Hills. The church was actually birthed much earlier, from conversations between a few friends who shared a desire to be part of a community of faith that not only had a new way of functioning but also generated a different outcome. At that point I had said, on more than one occasion, that I didn’t think I would be able to stay Christian in any useful sense over the next 50 years if I continued with the expression of Christianity I was currently living–pretty disconcerting stuff for a pastor.2
Pagitt explains why he felt he needed to find a new expression of Christianity that was different from what he had been accustomed to previously. He states:
This was not a crisis of faith in the typical sense; I never doubted God, Jesus, or the Christian faith. And yet I had a deep sense, which has actually grown deeper since, that I needed to move into a Christianity that somehow fit better with the world I lived in, not an expression reconstituted from another time.3
Pagitt goes into more depth on how he views fitting “better with the world” he lives in:
We also understand ourselves as part of a global community. We are required to live our local expressions of Christianity in harmony with those around the world. The beliefs and practices of our Western church must never override or negate the equally valid and righteous expressions of faith lived by Christians around the world. It is essential that we recognize our own cultural version of Christianity and make ourselves open to the work of God’s hand in the global community of faith.4
Notice the emphasis on a “global community of faith” that permits all “expressions of faith” by anyone and everyone who claims to be Christian. As we are going to see, Pagitt bases his ideas of changing the profile of Christianity on an ecumenical view that permits beliefs and experiences not found in the Bible. Not only are they not found in the Bible, the plan can’t work with an intact Bible. In order for the emerging church to succeed, the Bible has to be looked at through entirely different glasses, and Christianity needs to be open to a new type of faith. Brian McLaren calls this new faith a “generous orthodoxy.”5 While such an orthodoxy allows a smorgasbord of ideas to be proclaimed in the name of Christ, many of these ideas are actually forbidden and rejected by Scripture.
Pagitt believes that he is part of a cutting-edge response to the new postmodern world. It’s a response he and others see as completely unique, never having been tried before in the history of man. Pagitt states:
It seems to me that our post-industrial times require us to ask new questions–questions that people 100 years ago would have never thought of asking. Could it be that our answers will move us to re-imagine the way of Christianity in our world? Perhaps we as Christians today are not only to consider what it means to be a 21st century church, but also and perhaps more importantly–what it means to have a 21st century faith.6
Many people I meet at conferences who come from a wide variety of church backgrounds tell me the church they have been attending for years has radically changed. Their pastor no longer teaches the Bible. Instead, the Sunday morning service is a skit or a series of stories. The Bible seems to have become the forbidden book. While there are pastors who do still teach the Bible, they are becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Emergent leaders often say the message remains the same, but our methods must change if we are going to be relevant to our generation. The measure of success for many pastors today is how many are coming, rather than how many are listening and obeying what God has said in His Word. Let’s consider how Doug Pagitt uses the Bible in his own church. He states:
At Solomon’s Porch, sermons are not primarily about my extracting truth from the Bible to apply to people’s lives. In many ways the sermon is less a lecture or motivational speech than it is an act of poetry–of putting words around people’s experiences to allow them to find deeper connection in their lives… So our sermons are not lessons that precisely define belief so much as they are stories that welcome our hopes and ideas and participation.7
What Pagitt is describing is a contextual theology; that is, don’t use the Bible as a means of theology or measuring rod of truth and standards by which to live; and rather than have the Bible mold the Christian’s life, let the Christian’s life mold the Bible. That’s what Pagitt calls “putting words around people’s experiences.” As this idea is developed, emerging proponents have to move away from Bible teachings and draw into a dialectic approach. That way, instead of just one person preaching truth or teaching biblical doctrine, everyone can have a say and thus come to a consensus of what the Bible might be saying. Pagitt explains:
To move beyond this passive approach to faith, we’ve tried to create a community that’s more like a potluck: people eat and they also bring something for others. Our belief is built when all of us engage our hopes, dreams, ideas and understandings with the story of God as it unfolds through history and through us.8
1. Doug Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), pp. 17, 19.
2. Ibid., p. 41.
4. Ibid., pp. 27, 29.
5. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).
6. Pagitt, Church Re-Imagined, op. cit., pp. 17, 19.
7. Ibid., p. 166.
8. Doug Pagitt, Church ReImagined, op. cit., p. 167.