In the church, but not of it …

Maggi Dawn has always brought clear thinking into the emerging church conversation and church life as a whole which I deeply appreciate. As one who’s in a small denominational Lutheran setting while having relatively much freedom to explore, I appreciate the statements found in her post “In the church, but not of it …” (her words in BOLD) and I decided to allow those word to spring my own “unrefined” reflections.
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This got me thinking further on the theme of the connection between old and new forms of Church. There’s a lot of talk about the kind of innovative ‘party church’ or house-group churches run by people like TallSkinnyKiwi, Alan Creech and many others; there’s lots of good stuff going on there. And there is another whole raft of people – me included – who have experimented with ‘new forms’ and ended up doing the ’emerging’ thing within the context of the traditional, or institutional Church.

There are times when I meet Christians who give me the impression that “nothing” much can happen in the more traditional/institutional context I’m in, just because I’m not part of the “bold”, “daring”, “independent”, “radical”, … etc. things that’s “most happening” in Malaysian Christianity.

But, being part of BLC and the Lutheran Church in Malaysia has given me a “on the edge” kind of perspective and place to serve rather than just being so called “cutting edge”. It has been a very humbling and enriching process. And in spite of often “struggles” that few will understand because of this “less traveled path” I’ve chosen, God somehow keeps breathing hope in me when I’m tempted to see otherwise.

But in both old forms and new there is suspicion and resistance about the form of Church that ‘we are not’. Traditional churches have always had their die-hards who wouldn’t countenance anything new. But there is also a tangible (and understandable) antipathy towards the traditional church among some proponents of Emerging/Emergent – often because it was bad experiences of church that pushed them not only into Emerging church, but into an independent setting as well.

I recall in my previous ministry setting (prior to BLC), I would easily write off the so called “ineffective” forms of church (as we saw it) just because it’s “traditional”. There was a kind of pride that we were more “advance” in our ways until more and more I felt that in the midst of being “open” to new things we were actually “closed” to new insights that could have been “unearthed” in our traditional forms and heritage.

After I seriously finished reading through our model constitution for a local congregation as well as the constitution of the denomination 4 years ago, I realized it was not as rigid and inflexible as I perceived it to be (ok! Maybe some of the interpretations given by certain “authority” figures maybe one sided). Overall there’s room for experimentation while being anchored in the best of our past, and a kind of “fence” to keep us from running of into some form of “sanctified individualistic” lone ranger syndrome (which some do by leaving the denomination, others while remaining in the denomination)

For me, ‘Emerging’ within the context of a trad setting has at least 2 purposes – a) I believe the whole Church needs to ’emerge’ into the present and the future, and b) I believe that both old and new forms of Church have treasures that they should share with each other. The experimental daring of new forms is a breath of fresh air to the tradition (in fact, the tradition is basically made up of a collection of daring experiments that have stood the test of time, so to reject things because they are new is a ridiculous bit of double-thinking). But the history, theology and stability of the tradition is a much stronger umbilical cord than Emerging groups would sometimes like to admit (especially if it’s just those traditions that have recently burned them).

It’s funny that in the past four years, as I’ve been deeply challenged and spurred forward by those in the emergent/emerging conversation (Jason Clark has been a great encouragement I must say!), I’ve also actually been also profoundly linked more and more to my own Lutheran heritage specifically (through interaction with the wider Lutheran communion, thanks to involvement with Lutheran World Federation activities and reflecting through the best writings &theology that’s produced in the past as well as present as much as I can, introduced by Lutheran teachers and theologians I got in touch with) and the wider church historically and globally.

To me, I don’t necessarily see both as antithesis. And especially in our Malaysian context (and specifically my denominational context), though there are “forces” that seem to pull innovation and tradition apart, personally I think it’s actually possible to integrate the process. Much of the battlefield is in our “minds” (i.e. paradigms, mental models, etc), of course our egos/pride must be guarded too (which usually is the main problem). And in reality, someone needs to start somewhere and I’m always tempted to say “Why isn’t someone else doing something about it?” And if slowly and organically and wisely one becomes two then three and so on … things become even more exciting. This kind of thinking changes the way I may view some of the “boring” meetings or committees I’m part of (where to some we maybe wasting time) but this might actually be the place where a seed of change can be planted. Why should I underestimate God?

There are good and bad renditions of both old and new forms. I long to see the visionaries, the pastors, the theologians, the teachers and the artists in both old and new connect up and share their treasures. We’ll all be richer if we do. But in both old and new forms of Church we need to resist the temptation to tribalism (the belief that only we have the right way of doing it) which is death to any church community. Maybe, to subvert St Paul’s phrase, we need to be “In the church, but not of it…”

“Tribalism”(the belief that only we have the right way of doing it) is a real danger in Malaysia maybe not so much structurally … because as a minority and a group strongly wants to survive and thrive, we do work together through new networks being set up or other forms available (e.g. Council of Churches Malaysia or the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship and the Christian Federation of Malaysia) and yet how deep and how far we can go may be hindered more due to a “hidden mental tribalism” (cf. Spiritual pride or prejudice?) which will ultimately hurt our corporate witness here and now and beyond.

For me, change must start with myself, and through the congregation I serve in, flowing to the connections I’m part of denominationally and inter-denominationally, and somehow regionally and globally in whatever way possible …
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