During my time in Asheville, NC, God began to turn my world upside down as far as all of the preconceived notions that I had regarding the church, theology, and spirituality. My very formulaic approach towards spirituality was nice if you wanted to put on a show for everybody, but if you really wanted to get down to it and be a follower of Christ, formulas didn’t get you very far. Another irony through the personal growth was that I connected with a guy who helped me along in the journey, offering some pretty radical advice and pushing me to ask the questions that had already been welling up within me. The irony of it wasn’t who he was, it was the fact that the person who had suggested I get in touch with him would have strongly reconsidered had he known what the outcome would be.
When I started seminary, I wasn’t really scared of being pushed to the edge of reason in my faith because of what I had been through up to that point. I had already been wrestling with some questions, not so much about theology, but about methodology. That’s where I really struggled and still continue to struggle. When I left Asheville, I had been accused of not being honest about my denominational allegiance. My response was a question, “Are you referring to theological or methodological?” The question was met with silence, so I continued, “Because if you mean methodological, then you’re absolutely right. But if you meant theological, then I challenge you to point out where my theology differs from yours.” Again, I was met with silence. Needless to say, I learned an awful lot through the experience. But like I said, I was asking some serious questions about the methodology of this thing that we call church. In fancy theological terms, you could say that my ecclesiology was being stretched and reformed.
My seminary program is different from the traditional program as it is not in residence and I have the opportunity to interact with others who are in ministry throughout the states, and in some cases, the world. God led me to some others who were wrestling through some of the very same questions that I was wrestling with. All of a sudden, we could wrestle together, safely, without being labeled heretics or liberals. We could ask questions that we might normally be afraid to ask in our ministry settings.
I can honestly say that I don’t have that fear where God has me right now. He has blessed me with some brothers and mentors who are willing to ask the same tough questions about why we do what we do as I have been asking. But I know that there are probably those who are in churches that don’t feel that way. They don’t feel that they can question some of the rigid methodologies that have been tested and found “tried and true.”
Now, please understand, I am not talking about a reinterpretation of theology or even an expansion of it. I am not suggesting anything other than a shift in how we do things. As I look over the landscape of Western churches, I struggle with what I see. The church, when it first began, was a counter-cultural movement, it did not take its cues from culture, but rather it took its cues from Scripture. The idea of contextualization has been utilized in missions since the beginning. Paul did it, Peter did it, others did it, so it’s not new. The question is, how much of what we see in culture do we use in the church and how much do we say, “No more?”
The Western church has not been through a significant amount of hardship. You can sort of see that by some of the reactions that Christians have when their religious freedoms are threatened. The funny thing is, in the places where they have no religious freedoms, the church is thriving more than it is here in the West. Through struggle, through abuse, through trial and tribulation, the church rises up. It reminds me of the mythical Phoenix. The phoenix gets to the end of its life and it burns up and out of the ashes comes new life.
I wonder if that’s what needs to happen with the Western church. Do we need to be brought into the fire and burned up? Do we need to rise from the ashes, better than we were before? I think that we need to consider what that could mean. Through the fire, the dross is burned off and we are left with something that is better, more beautiful. Could it be that we have missed the mark when it comes to our understanding of how we do church? If we have, what are we doing to rise from the ashes?