Emergent Christians finding a new path

Gideon and Karen Tsang prayed for a year before deciding to sell their spacious North Austin home and move into a modest 800-square-foot house in an East Austin neighborhood.

The couple and their two boys, ages 7 and 3, left higher-rated schools and a lower crime rate. They had to sell nearly all of their furniture because it wouldn’t fit into the new house.

But they were pretty sure this is what Jesus wanted them to do.

“We feel the path of Christ is not in upward mobility; it’s in downward,” Gideon Tsang said.

The son of a Chinese missionary, Tsang, 33, grew up in Canada, attended an evangelical seminary in Illinois and eventually landed at Austin Chinese Church — a North Austin congregation made up mostly of immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — where he led a ministry for college students called Liquid. That grew into Vox Veniae, which formed last year with a core of middle-class students and young professionals who, like Tsang, longed “to be the hands and feet of Christ in Austin.”

Vox members have now bought or are renting six homes in the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, driven by a desire to share their resources by living among people who have less. Vox members hope to set up computer training classes, teach kids to build bikes and work as mentors in nearby public schools.

“It’s all grace,” Tsang said. “What we receive, we now have to give back.”

The Tsangs and their friends are among thousands of young Christians around the country and abroad who are re-examining what it means to follow Jesus and changing not only how they worship, but also how they live.

They say they are paring down the Gospel message to what they see as essential and challenging the definition of church. Following Christ, they say, is not about building bricks-and-mortar sanctuaries but seeing the world outside church walls as God’s sanctuary.

“It’s not that the church meeting on Sunday isn’t sacred,” said Evan Wilson, a 20-year-old Vox Veniae member, “but that everything we do is sacred.”

Unfortunately, many evangelical shepherds, who have passed from a prophetic to a professional model of ministry too readily welcome wolves into God’s flock if those wolves are decked out in the latest, trendiest garb.

The cutting-edge heresy that is being welcomed by many Evangelicals today is known as the Emerging Church movement.

While many participants in this movement undoubtedly know and love Christ, and while many of their criticisms of evangelical tendencies are well founded, their concessions to relativism inevitably lead them downward to serious doctrinal and moral deviations that they bring into the household of God.
Postmodernism and the Emerging Church Movement, by David Kowalksi (Resource suggested by RNB)

Some scholars who have watched the movement see young people rejecting the consumerism and individualism of the previous generation by simplifying their lives, paying more attention to environmental and social concerns and building stronger connections with other people. They say it is gaining steam and could be Christianity’s next reformation; others dismiss it as one of the faith’s fleeting fads, like the hippie-driven Jesus People movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

The movement has taken on a variety of labels — it’s called emergent, emerging, postmodern and missional, among other things — although these Christians resist being defined. Their numbers are difficult to estimate because they don’t focus on attendance, and their ideas about what church should be cover a wide spectrum:

In an industrial park in North Austin, Rick Diamond, a former associate pastor at Austin megachurch Riverbend, now leads a small congregation called Journey Imperfect Faith Community, which shares a space with Alcoholics Anonymous and local musicians who need rehearsal space.

In Seattle, the Church of the Apostles is a modern-day urban monastery where members live and worship together and organize supper clubs and drum circles on the beach.

In Minneapolis, a church called Solomon’s Porch holds Monday night art gatherings where musicians, writers and visual artists seek to connect with God.

“I think it is a return to a more radical Gospel,” said Eddie Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

Young people, he said, see limitations in the institutional church, which has been vulnerable to corruption and has at times prized money and power. This movement, he said, is a “reaction against the consumerism of their parents.”

Gregory Koukl, an evangelical radio show host and author in Los Angeles, doesn’t see a return to biblical roots. He sees Christians being seduced by a sort of relativism that “eviscerates the Gospel.”

“You cannot deny the existence of objective truth and still be faithful to the message that Jesus entrusted Christians with,” Koukl said. “This is an attempt to recast the Gospel in terms of 21st century cultural philosophy.”

He predicts that the movement will fade eventually.

The Emergent Church movement began taking shape in the late 1990s when a small network of mostly younger Christian leaders wondered what to do about the growing chasm between their churches and an increasing number of young people who either had no formal church background or viewed traditional churches as irrelevant at best and hurtful at worst.

In 2000, a small group from around the country gathered at minister Tony Jones’ family cabin in northern Minnesota to share feelings of disillusionment with the modern church and discuss a vision for reclaiming the Gospel. Among the group was Brian McLaren, whose 2001 book, “A New Kind of Christian,” would challenge people to rethink their ideas about church and become a guide for many in the emergent movement.

Jones later posted notes from that meeting on his blog: “Something’s not working. Why? We think some of our beliefs are wrong, we think some of our systems are unhelpful, and some of our practices are misguided. We retain confidence in Jesus but are convinced that a thorough revolution, re-evaluation, re-formation, deconstruction, reconstruction of our ways are needed.”

Calling themselves emergent or emerging made sense, Jones said, because American Christianity has always been re-emerging. He points to the Great Awakening that led to a religious revival in 18th century New England and the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles that brought Pentecostalism to the fore in the early 1900s.

“The difference between this movement and previous ones is the advent of the new media,” Jones said. “We don’t need the imprimatur of a seminary professor and a publishing house to put a paper on the Internet that gets read by thousands of people. … We don’t go through denominational headquarters anymore.”

They started organizing conventions and publishing books that gave ministers ideas on how to “do church” in the 21st century. They flooded cyberspace with Emergent Church manifestos.

Congregations began popping up in storefronts, rented church space and people’s homes as ministers experimented with various liturgical forms. Austin, with its young, artistic population, proved to be fertile ground for new spiritual expressions: A growing number of communities that identify with emerging Christianity have formed here in the past five years.

Meanwhile, other Christians had the same goal but decided that the best way to connect with unchurched young people was to bring a more conventional Christian message to new settings such as coffee shops and warehouses. Gateway Church in North Austin, for example, was founded in 1998 as a community open to punk rockers, drug addicts and others who wouldn’t fit the typical churchgoing image. The message: Everyone was welcome, whatever his or her background.

Gateway pastor John Burke wrote a book, “No Perfect People Allowed,” that has resonated with many ministers seeking to reach people who wouldn’t normally set foot in a church.

Though Burke’s writings deal with Emergent Church themes — his church is hosting a conference on the subject this fall — he says he isn’t casting doubt on basic Christian doctrine the way some emerging Christians do. The church, he said, must tend to what’s broken by opening its arms to sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, homosexuals and nonbelievers, giving them a place to ask hard questions about faith and helping them heal.

“Come as you are,” he said, “but don’t stay that way.”

Despite their theological differences, many emerging leaders agreed that they needed to separate the idea of church from a specific place and time. The church, they said, should be the people, the body of Christ. And the body of Christ should be acting out the love of Jesus wherever they happened to be.

Dozens of congregations around the country have started something called “theology pub,” a regular gathering at a local bar where people talk about Jesus over a pint. Ministers play disc golf or go for bike rides with seekers to build relationships outside the church walls.

One Sunday this spring, Tsang and his congregation volunteered to spend the day reforesting an Austin nature preserve — that was their worship gathering. Afterward, sweaty and dirty, they stopped for burgers, and people asked where they were coming from.

They grinned and replied, “Church.”

“For the emerging churches, (church is) not a place, it’s a people,” Gibbs said. “It’s not a weekly gathering; it’s a seven-day-a-week community. And you don’t go to church; you are the church.”

That doesn’t mean emerging Christians have turned their back on observing the sabbath, but their services are a far cry from what many grew up with. They might use literature and poetry in the liturgy or play U2 and Van Morrison songs before and after the service.

Vox Veniae rents a space in University Baptist Church for its Sunday evening worship service. The altar is a small stage festooned with Chinese lanterns. The band, which features a trombone player and cellist, plays rousing music as the members, seated at round tables, sing along.

Emerging Christians like to say that if you walked into one of their services, you wouldn’t be able to identify the pastor.

At Mosaic, a young congregation that recently moved from the attic of a Baptist church to a storefront on Airport Boulevard, a line of people wearing flip-flops and jeans gets up to lead prayer during the liturgy.

But as thoroughly contemporary as they are, many emerging Christians are drawn to ancient traditions. The pastors at Mosaic come from Baptist backgrounds, but the congregation participates in weekly communion and recites confessional prayers that evoke a Catholic Mass. Journey, the congregation that worships at the North Austin industrial park, adopted the tradition of marking people’s foreheads with ashes at the beginning of Lent — a rite that wasn’t familiar to most of the worshippers, including pastor David Gentiles.

“I’m a Baptist boy,” he said.

“You’re not bound by liturgy,” said Diamond, who shares pastoral duties with Gentiles. “You can do what’s right for your community.”

At mainstream churches, some leaders have eyed the emergent movement warily, arguing that the new congregations are diluting the gospel. Other churches have tried to adapt by coming up with new services aimed at a younger demographic.

Some mainline Protestant and evangelical churches have established a church within a church where the older, traditional crowd worships in the morning and the Gen X-ers hold contemporary services in the evenings.

Charles Whitmire, pastor of Crestview Baptist Church, began noticing that the young professionals moving into the church’s North Austin neighborhood would rather go for a bike ride on Sunday morning than sing “The Old Rugged Cross” with a congregation where the median age is 70.

So with his members’ support, he established Phoenix Church of Austin earlier this year. Whitmire leads the evening services in the sanctuary, and his first service included references to Bono and David Letterman and featured a driving rock band. Whitmire, an avid cyclist and screenwriter who fits the demographic he’s trying to reach, had bumper stickers made up that said “Make Church Weird.”

He said he doesn’t see a need to change Baptist theology to suit the new congregation, but he wants people to feel comfortable asking questions about their faith and expressing doubt.

“If we’re going to minister to this generation,” Whitmire said, “it’s messy; it’s muddy.”

Tom Goodman, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church, which he described as a conservative evangelical congregation, said he doesn’t condemn ministers who “know how to put the hip in worship.” But he said some emerging leaders seem to question the authority of the Bible and the nature of Jesus, which strikes him as “plain old liberalism with a soul patch.”

At Northwest Hills United Methodist Church, senior pastor Bill Henderson jokingly refers to himself as a dinosaur and says he’s happy to see people trying new approaches to spread the faith.

“If somebody starts up a coffeehouse ministry and is preaching the Gospel, I hope he or she gets people to go because they’re probably not going to come to my place,” he said.

As Tsang walks through his new neighborhood, he passes African American and Hispanic neighbors. Some wave. Some look at him quizzically. He understands why.

“We never drove into these neighborhoods before,” he says. Now they live here.

They have begun meeting their neighbors, including Zoe, the woman across the street who made sure their lawn was mowed while they were out of town. The Tsangs’ sons are making friends. And the Tsangs and the other Vox Veniae members who have moved here have begun planning their first community projects.

Gideon Tsang hopes to volunteer as a mentor at his son’s elementary school but said his main goal is to simply be a good neighbor, to share what he has and receive what others give. The message of Jesus that is preached in church services means nothing, he says, “if it doesn’t change how we live seven days a week.”

“In the end, it may not work out,” he says. “But we feel the cost of not doing it is higher.”

• Original title: Austin’s ’emergent’ Christians finding a new path

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Austin American-Statesman, USA
Aug. 12, 2007
Eileen E. Flynn

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This post was last updated: Aug. 13, 2007