A Modest Proposal: resisting relevance

This is the text of a workshop address delivered by Jamie Howison at The Great Emergence, a conference held in Winnipeg on Saturday October 31, with featured speaker Phyllis Tickle.  Several people connected to to saint ben’s were involved in the conference, including Gord Johnson and Larry Campbell (who led the morning worship), Mike Boyce, Rachel Twigg-Boyce, and Brent Toderash.


n this session, I want to offer something by way of a cautionary word regarding how not to engage Phyllis Tickle’s work on what she calls “the great emergence.”  Along the way, I hope to provide something by way of a reflection on the times and context in which we find ourselves; a refection that might help church communities to “read the signs of the times” rather than to just react to the shifting ground on which we all stand.

I do need to say that I find her theory of the 500-year cycle of church attic cleaning and rummage sales to be fascinating, and I would want to suggest that we have much to learn from two of those rummage sales in particular.  I would first echo Alisdair McIntyre’s justly famous observation in the closing paragraph of his book, After Virtue:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.”[1]

This sentiment is powerfully echoed by Joan Chittister in an address given at the 2003 Trinity Institute Conference, “Shaping Holy Lives”.  There is much to be learned from the 1500 year old Benedictine response to the social, cultural and ecclesial upheaval of that time.

Even more significant, though, is the trauma that was the Babylonian Exile, some 500+ years before the birth of Christ.  Less a rummage sale and more a demolition project executed by a hostile land developer, the key question for Israel in Exile is perhaps the key question for us as well:  “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  I will return to this question further into this session.

The temptation is to bump up against Tickle’s ideas, and to immediately jump to our very modern default settings:  “how can I apply this in my church context?” or “what should we do with this in our specific denominational or institutional setting?”  Yet what we must not do is take this material as a set of techniques or strategies; as a template for implementing congregational growth, rejuvenation or survival.  To do that would be a decidedly modern reading of a position which says, among other things, modernity has hit a wall, and with it all of the assumptions of the modern church.

But we are, after all, children of modernity, and so we will be tempted to make a strategic reading of The Great Emergence.  “Ah, this is what people are looking for in a changing social world… this will make for relevant ministry in our times.”  But that, I think, is a misreading of what it is that Tickle is trying to say.  And to “give the people what they want” – to build ministry around trying to meet the needs of people as they think they understand them – for the sake of relevance and growth is a betrayal.  Strategies for increasing the viability of ministry, without having real, imaginative and transformative clarity as to why we’re doing any of this in the first place, is worse than a dead end; it is idolatrous.

In short, both raw growth and survival are dubious goals for the church.  If the single most decisive thing that Jesus did was to drop dead on an executioner’s cross, why would we imagine that survival or growth – in their own right – are worth a damn thing?

Yet I believe that Tickle is fundamentally correct in her observations about the shifting social and ecclesial ground upon which we stand, so let me utter that dreaded word: postmodern.  And as I do that, let me also say that when this term is invoked in church circles, it is often without much sense of what is really meant: sometimes, it is used in a way that suggests “uber-modern” or maybe “ultra-current”.  And frankly, it is a notoriously hard term to pin down.

Maybe the neatest of definitions comes courtesy of Michael Thompson, a priest and writer from Oakville, Ontario:  “Whatever else the term means, it points to the fact that the assumptions of modernity are no longer holding.”  That would include things like the belief in progress, a reliance on science and technology, the priority of the rational (and a corresponding belief that we can solve the problems of the world through things like diplomacy), the existence of a unifying “metanarrative” or shared cultural story, and so forth.

You could argue fairly convincingly that the initial blows to the modern world-view came with the experience of the First World War, which is quickly followed by the Spanish Influenza pandemic.  According to Stanley Grenz, (A Primer on Postmodernism): “Postmodernism was born in St Louis, Missouri, on July 15, 1972, at 3:32 PM.”  That is when the award-winning modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project was dynamited after proving itself to be a social disaster.

And Grenz points out that the contemporary church – most particularly, though not only, the more evangelical end of the church – is tightly tied to modernity: it has invested heavily in rational apologetics, and in offering a counter-point to what it has perceived as the encroachment of secularism, humanism and rationalism on the church’s turf.

But this very church, says Phyllis Tickle, is now in the midst of a great emergence; a time of upheaval and renewal and reconsideration and maybe rebirth.  And our hard-wiring and our default settings might tempt us into thinking that if we play this one right – if we catch the wave as it is beginning to crest – we can ride it out to a glorious conclusion.

And as soon as we feel that kind of confidence rising in our systems, we’ve caught the seductive scent of the great red herring named relevance.  You know what a red herring is?  As an image, it surfaces in a 19th century story, in which the protagonist drags a smoked herring across the path of a fox hunt, leading the hounds off down the wrong trail.  Well, modernity keeps dragging a red herring across our collective path, so that rather than keeping on the trail of the ever-elusive Divine Fox, we find ourselves chasing our tails or barking up the wrong tree.

Use the latest thing – the latest technique or trend – and catch that wave… but always keep your eyes open for the next one.   In his wonderfully playful little book The Astonished Heart – published in 1996 but anticipating much of what Tickle is on about – Robert Farrar Capon lists off a series of the models – the waves, so to speak – that we’ve been buying.  Among them, the following:

  • a corporate organizational model, in which we take all of our cues from business and management writers, organizing our denominations and churches toward some sort of imagined efficiency;
  • the North American mega-church model;
  • the various renewal models, including the charismatic, the small group, and the various strategies informed by the church-growth experts;

You could add more of your own to the list, I’m sure:

  • the Willow Creek inspired seeker model
  • the prosperity gospel “word of faith” model
  • the purpose-driven model, the Alpha program, Cursillo, the upper case “E” Emergent models

Some of them would even seem to be wildly successful, and in some cases legitimately transformational for some people in some contexts; Alpha or the seeker movement have provided real points of entry into faith for many people outside of the church. But when applied in the name of relevance – the current thing – and for the sake of success, these strategies won’t do anything – or not anything lasting – because they have become mere techniques, and we’re not to be about manipulating people.

I co-wrote a piece for the Anglican Journal with the blogger Brother Maynard  (aka Brent Toderash) – a piece which ended up falling victim to the downsizing of that paper and probably to the joint authors’ insistence on being just a bit too clever – in which we reflected on matters of the emergent church and on relevance, and Brother Maynard offered up what I think is a true gem:

“Relevant” is a word which, for me, becomes increasingly irrelevant. It’s so overused it loses meaning – I want to look at people chasing relevance and say, in the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”  If the social and cultural context is in flux, then chasing cultural relevance will be an elusive goal.[2]

For instance, you’ve decided that a key to the future of your church’s ministry is to establish a strong web presence, so you set up a really nice site, but pretty soon you’re going to have to add audio and video to keep up to speed.  Somewhere along the line, someone suggests that you need to connect to people through Facebook, and then Twitter… you’ve linked a bunch of bloggers, but you want to keep an eye on what they’re doing to be sure it is in concert with your ethos… and who knows what tomorrow will bring?  Who can keep up?

Chasing relevance, chasing the thing that we hope will be the key to our next chapter – in this example, trying to keep ahead of the internet curve, with video pieces on our websites, some fancy new interactive feature, or whatever it is that surfaces after Twitter – is a blind alley.  All of that time and energy and focus and hope, yet is it actually doing anything like the thing that we’re to be about as the Body of Christ?   A bit more from Brother Maynard:

Once you reshape for “today,” you’re irrelevant because everyone else has moved on, so either you’re tuned in as it happens or you’re three steps behind.  By the time you import someone’s how-to program to rectify the situation, it’s too late.  We need a timeless approach.[3]

Timeless, yes, but what is timeless?  Am I suggesting that we should all become Luddites, reject anything new or innovative, and stick with whatever it is that distinguished us fifty years back?  No. That’s not being timeless, but rather bound to a very particular time in the story of the church.

No, the way is not back to some idealized simpler time, nor is it to be found in freezing things in the present.  The way is indeed forward, but the goal can be neither raw growth nor driven by some reading of what is socially relevant.

In a piece published in the Christian Century in 2000, Lauren Winner described what she had come to observe among the 20-something GenXers of that period.  They are interested, wrote Winner, in “substance, not the packaging,” and then continued, “People come to church looking for spiritual food – they shouldn’t leave feeling like they have to go to an ashram to find it.”[4]

Ironically, though, we could now turn substantial offerings of spiritual food – expressions of depth and explorations of the great tradition – into the next thing that we try out in the pursuit of relevance.  Want to grow your church?  Icons and incense.  Want to get more web traffic?  Try including lots of references to St Benedict and illustrations from the Book of Kells.  Which is kind of what has been happening as the movement called the emerging church began to be domesticated into the brand name Emergent.

No, relevance dates, and dates badly and quickly.  Timelessness, at least in the context of the church, takes work and intentionality, particularly in a cultural milieu that is built around consumption and the myth of the easy life.  That myth just won’t deliver, of course, because in a consumption-driven economy there will always be more to consume, for the sake of which you will be expected to become financially indebted.  Instead, unveil the myth, and do it with what the Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann calls “counterpractice.”[5]

Your unique counterpractice is to participate in communities that have this odd identity as the Body of Christ.  In these communities, we – particularly the preacher, but not only the preacher – have a role not unlike that of the scribes Jesus speaks of in Matthew; not the sort of tired and compromised scribes who are lumped in with the Pharisees in Matthew 25, in that memorable phrase ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’  No, rather the sort of scribes Jesus refers to in that same gospel, when after teaching a series of parables of the Kingdom he has the following exchange with the disciples,

51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Mt 13:51-52)

We are to bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old, and somewhere in doing that we might just be offering up the real, timeless thing that we all crave.[6]

The scribes come to the fore in ancient Israel at a time when all of the familiar guideposts have been uprooted.  For over five hundred years, Israel had been able to count on its story being carried forward by both palace and temple; by church and state, so to speak.  When that story began to distort – either through some problematic king or through a hollowness of practice amongst the temple priests – they could count on the prophets to come and call things as they saw them; to be the voices that could confront both the royal household and a morally compromised religious practice.

The whole thing sprang apart at the point when Babylon needed to secure a new trade route, which just happened to run through the middle of Israel.  Predictably, the Israelites resisted, and so they were effectively dismembered as a nation.  How in heaven’s name do you tell your story when you’re not even sure if there is a story to be told after the whole familiar world in which you’d exercised your faith has been dismantled?  When your deepest fear is that either the God you’ve been backing is not as strong as Babylon, or that crazy Jeremiah was right… God is judging us by forsaking us.  Enter the scribes.  They remembered.  They re-membered the entire story of Israel, right up to and including the disaster that was the Babylonian exile.  They not only preserved the story, they told new ones.  They listened to songs of lament being sung at the edges of the Babylonian rivers, and they wrote them down.  And they helped the people begin to imagine how to be the people of God in this strange place.  How to be Israel in an utterly new, yet deeply rooted manner.

People who are members of the Body of Christ and scribes for the Kingdom of God can’t just hive off, covering our heads and caretaking our own houses. Members of the Body and scribes for the Kingdom will engage the world in all of its brokenness and beauty; will engage the culture’s insights and longings; will find the places where truth is sought and told, even if that is sometimes in words not our own. “How can we not sing the Lord’s song in an increasingly strange land?”

And here’s a strange thing for this odd people that we are.  We actually have the best shot at being who and what we were meant to be at those moments when everything is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket.  That’s the power of those parts of Isaiah and Jeremiah which are sung into the disaster of exile; part of what Ezekiel incarnates in his strange, even tortured life as a prophet of strange visions and enacted parables; it is something the psalmists know at those moments when things have just begun to turn the corner from utter bleakness – “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” – and it lies at the heart of the gospels, of Paul’s epistles – “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” – and in a very particular way, it is at the heart of the much misread Revelation of St John the Divine, which is all about the transformative power of the sacrificial lamb.

To cite Robert Capon at some length:

The operative fact is that a start can only occur after a stop.  As Isaiah reminded Israel, the church’s strength is to stand still:  all the power, all the resources, and all the hope of the defunctly marginal lie hidden in the terrifying reality of their death.  Only out of that can they live.  But, having accepted that, they can model their life in any way that strikes their fancy… The only thing they need to guard against is the temptation to stop being dead, the longing to be alive and kicking again.  Alive and kicking may be nice, but it’s not astonishing.  Dead and kicking, though… that’s astonishing.  That, in fact, is resurrection – and it’s the only thing that can bring out the best in the church.[7]

In the end, the most important thing we can learn from Phyllis Tickle is that we’re in the midst of a massive upheaval; a death, even. Rather than trying to strategize our way – technique, program, and model our way – into some supposed new future of our own engineering, the best thing we can possibly do is to read the signs of the times, be watchful of what and how our brother and sister communities are living in this time, keep our hands loose on the reins of control, and learn again to sing the Lord’s song in this increasingly strange land, breaking bread with those whom we’ve been told for centuries to avoid.  In short, to await with openness the life God is going to bring out of the dead, dry bones.  And make no mistake; the dry bones will dance.

Jamie Howison

October 31, 2009

Resources for Further Reading:

What follows here is hardly comprehensive… but these are some of the voices to which we might want to attend.  You’ll notice that many of them are ten or more years old… I suppose I have discovered that it is the books that have at least begun to stand the test of time that are the most substantial.

Albert Borgmann, Power Failure (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).

  • Borgmann is a Christian philosopher, who teaches at the University of Montana.  This is probably the best point of entry into his work on theology and technology; work which has deeply influenced Eugene Peterson, among others.

Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher as Scribe” in Inscribing the Text (Augsburg Fortress, 2004).

  • Everything I have to say about the Exile, the scribal tradition, and the way in which the church must learn to pay attention to what happened those 2500 years ago, I learned from Walter Brueggemann.  See also his essay “Rethinking Church Models through Scripture” in Cadences of Home (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).

Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

  • Capon is both wildly unconventional and quite profoundly orthodox.  This book is a whirlwind tour through the church’s story, in which Capon seeks to “reclaim the good news from the lost-and-found of church history.” Of Capon’s writing, Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis) says, “Go out and buy all his books and read them immediately.”

Joan Chittister, A Choice Between Impossibilities from The 2003 Trinity Institute “Shaping Holy Lives” Conference, DVD.

  • Sr Joan Chittister is one feisty nun… and in this address she challenges the church to pay deep attention to the Benedictine experience of some 1500 years ago as a way of moving forward in a socially chaotic world.  DVD available for purchase online at http://episcopalonline.org/ Just ignore the fact that you’re on a site that wants to sell you all manner of Anglican “merch”.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: the Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

  • If you’re serious about wanting to engage the postmodern philosophical world from a Christian theological point of view, this book is for you.  But be warned: of the five people I know who have read this book, not a one of us would say we understood more than about half of it… at best!

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

  • Twenty years later, and there is something more than a little timely about this standard work by Hauerwas and Willimon.  Though dated in some of its references, its challenge that the church take seriously its place as a people in exile is even more pressing now than when the book was first published.
  • I would also recommend a slightly eccentric book by the noted lay-theologian and activist William Stringfellow, titled An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word, 1973).  First published in 1973, it has about it the urgency of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, but still stands as an extraordinarily poignant piece of sustained theological and spiritual reflection.  You will never again look at the Book of Revelation in the same way.

Alisdair McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

  • For those looking to explore more deeply, this landmark work by the philosopher Alisdair McIntyre is a must.  It is not an easy read… but we should all occasionally read a book that pushes us beyond our usual limits.  See also David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987).

  • Peterson has published a small truckload of books on the shape of the pastoral life.  This relatively early one does a magnificent job of challenging pastors to actually be pastors.

Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: reflections on cultural bereavement (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000).

  • A series of four reflective essays on the shape of the culture in which we find ourselves, Williams offers wise counsel as to how and where we might begin to relocate ourselves as people of faith.  Challenging, without being overwhelmingly dense.

[1] Alisdair McIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 263.

[2] Brother Maynard, aka Brent Toderash, “Exploring Things Emergent with Brother Maynard,” unpublished article written with Jamie Howison.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lauren Winner, “GenX Revisited” in The Christian Century, November 8, 2000, p. 1148.

[5] Albert Borgmann, Power Failure (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), p. 94.

[6] These reflections on exile and our scribal calling have been deeply informed by the work of Walter Brueggemann, and particularly his essay “The Preacher as Scribe,” Inscribing the Text (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), pp. 5-19.

[7] Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart (Grand Rapids and Cambridge : Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), p. 102.