Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays@Whenever July 29, 2020
Today I want to talk briefly about the last three “dispatches from the emergent frontier” from Tony Jones’ book, The New Christians:
#18: Emergents firmly hold that God’s Spirit—not their own efforts—is responsible for good in the world. The human task is to cooperate with God in what God is already doing.
We might call this the “get with the program” dispatch. More precisely, get with God’s program. This should not change our reality or our approach to doing good. Instead, this is a change in perspective—from the notion that humans initiate doing good in the world to the notion that we are cooperating with what God is already doing.
God is doing good in the world—with or without our help. You and I can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.
I liken this to the efforts of government to do good in the world. Like you, I am often cynical about the government, and yet I do realize that it has an enormous role to play in the alleviation of suffering and in setting up systems or programs that help us exist as a nation—and this applies to all nations on earth.
Admittedly, some governments are better than others in creating good for their people. In my opinion, our own government has a mixed record when it comes to doing good. I may not be overly cynical about government, nor am I overly idealistic about it either. It is deeply flawed.
Nevertheless, let’s imagine a government working on our behalf, creating good programs and structures for our people. There is no way one individual can operate on this level. Even benevolent billionaires such as Bill Gates can only do so much.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part or get with the program. Our task is to cooperate with the government (when we believe it is doing something right) because cooperating with the government makes us more effective than going it alone.
The same principle applies to working with God. Cooperating with God in our efforts to do good in the world makes us more effective.
#19: Emergents downplay—or outright reject—the differences between clergy and laity.
Most of us who are clergy have a difficult time with this dispatch. We worked long and hard to “earn” our right to be a professional clergyperson. We see ordination as a status symbol that comes with a title like “reverend.”
We bristle when we hear that someone received their ordination certificate through the mail. Those of us who serve denominations that require a higher education in order to be ordained clergy cringe when we hear about an “uneducated” pastor or someone taking the title “bishop,” although they have little or no education or experience.
After all, people who work in other professions understand the need to separate the educated, trained, and experienced from those who are not. For example, I don’t want to go see a cardiologist who didn’t go to medical school, even if they slept at a Holiday Inn Express one night. (I slept in a Holiday Inn Express the other night, and I had a hard time sleeping because it was either too hot or too cold the entire night.)
Clearly, there is some ego at play in this dance between clergy and laity, and yet on the surface it only seems fair to distinguish between the two. All professions use a system to determine who qualifies for a job or a title and who doesn’t. Why should we be in any different?
On the other hand, isn’t the church a different kind of institution? Yes, there will always be folks who are more educated and/or have talents or skills that help them to be a good pastor, teacher, or preacher, but is it really necessary to recognize these differences with titles, ordination papers, stoles and robes, and maybe even pointy hats and shoes?
Another way to approach this issue is to acknowledge that religion has become more “democratized.” That is, everyone has access to the same information as everyone else. My education may have helped me to be more aware of this information, and yet because of the internet everyone has access to the same stuff.
But its not just about access to information or knowledge. The larger question is whether we should be separating people into special categories in God’s realm in the first place. I admit that because I worked for so many years to attain my education and ordination status, I enjoy the “privileges” that come with that.
But I also know that there are lay people out there who are much more pastoral than I will ever be, there are people in the pews who can preach some very good sermons, and there are members in my church who are well read and have more knowledge of the Bible than I do. So, should we be drawing strict lines between clergy and laity? Emergent Christians say “no.”
#20: Emergents believe that church should be just as beautiful and messy as life.
This is the last dispatch and it is my favorite. After 30 years in ministry, the one thing I have learned is that I can never (through my own efforts to do good or with the aid of my ordination status) make the church run smoothly. There will always be messiness. Just as in life there is always messiness.
So, let’s embrace the messiness. Let’s imagine that the messiness is actually the beautiful part of church. We tend to think that church is beautiful when there are no conflicts, when everyone is getting along, when no one is criticizing the pastor, when money is pouring in and—before this pandemic hit—the pews are full of butts.
Imagine how boring a “perfect” church would be! When I retire in a few years I want to walk out of a church that is yelling and throwing things because there is still frustration and passion and a desire to make things better. I know that sounds weird, but maybe that’s God’s program.