May 16, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Rewriting History to Manufacture Evidence, Part I

“God gave leaders as gifts to the church for its mission. Some leaders gave voice to the movement in public forums, articulating the truth of the gospel, sharing the good news. Others taught new followers the spiritual and lifestyle tenets of what it means to be Jesus follower. Still others organized charity efforts within the community of faith, while some galvanized relief efforts for people in the larger community. Pioneer leaders extended the territory where the good news was shared. The kingdom of God was breaking through in unprecedented ways.

“Then something happened. Actually, several somethings happened over the course of centuries. Church leaders became captured by the institutionalization* of the church. Hierarchies of leaders developed with their efforts primarily focused on the church. This rise of a clergy class eventually turned the mission inward as the agenda of the kingdom of God yielded to ecclesiastical concerns. The biblical idea that followers of Jesus are called to live out his mission in the world became replaced by the substitute agenda of church members expressing their religious devotion through church activities superintended by clergy.” MISSIONAL RENAISSANCE by Reggie McNeal © 2009 (page 134)

Ah, the benefit of hindsight!

First of all, as Reggie McNeal is fond of saying in his book, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” I agree with McNeal’s premise: Christians MUST once again reach out past the walls of the church “building” and bring the love of Christ and the message of salvation to those who’ve been repelled by self-centered, self-serving Christians. I was a convert to his way of thinking after I read his “first” book, THE PRESENT FUTURE: SIX TOUGH QUESTIONS FOR THE CHURCH in 2005. I was on board as our church asked the questions and started to struggle with the answers. Reggie McNeal visited our church, spoke at a service and did a seminar, all of which I attended. I even have an autographed copy of TPF! Then we passed out from the shadow of the missional movement. It wasn’t long before we returned to business as usual. I tried to keep on, but began to question some of the framework he’d laid out.

When MISSIONAL RENAISSANCE was published, I bought it eagerly and immediately and I’m almost done reading it this time. Before I bought it, I reread TPF, taking more notes than I did before. The book stands up well, I still like it very much and though we’re at a different church now, the new church has a mission that seems to be in response to McNeal’s questions.

But my comments in the margins of MR are different from the ones in TPF. MR is markedly different. In fact, the tenor of the book seems entirely different. While its target is church leadership, the message seems to have shifted to one of putting the “institutionalized church” away and claiming that the “missional renaissance” is a return to the way church was originally done and the way it should be done – in fact must be done if Jesus is to be proclaimed in the 21st Century and beyond. He continually chants the mantra above, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying” as he slams and bashes the institutional church of the last 300 years.

I disagree with his rewriting of history and casting the organization itself as the sometime unwitting, oftentimes intentional villain of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. I also disagree that the church did anything that wasn’t already happening in society as a whole for good reason. The industrial revolution required higher levels of management because not only did more people have to work in concert, there were simply more people. The church had to respond in kind.

The church was not founded as an organization. McNeal points this out numerous times. It was a movement. But he always stops there! Once he says that Jesus birthed a movement, he skims over the necessity of following through to coordinate the increasing numbers of Christians. How else do you keep track of money, food, lodging, missionary trips and areas of coverage without some kind of organizational vine coalescing to connect branches with each other and draw sustenance from the main vine?

Jesus said it himself in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him will bear much fruit, for apart from me can do nothing.” The vine was necessary to keep the branches alive.

I agree with McNeal that the vine separated more and more from Jesus and eventually some of the vines removed Him altogether. I agree that we need Jesus today more than ever before. Even so, I have found more to disturb me in MR than I found to inspire me as I did in TPF. Mike Duran†, a popular blogger on all subjects spiritual and authorial, had this to say about the missional church – which includes McNeal’s plans and attacks – a part of the “emergent church movement”: The term ‘conversation’ has been attached to the emergent movement from its inception. Rather than a complete reworking of historic orthodoxy, the movement was framed as a second look into what we believe, and how those beliefs may have been tainted by modernity, politics, tradition, or religious institutions, polarized believers and anesthetized the Church.

I believe that in MR, McNeal has taken a stab at rewriting history and then using that revision to manufacture evidence to support his assertion that the church as we know it is done for. Of course, McNeal says repeatedly, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying!” despite the fact that over and over again, he attacks the institution and illustrates otherwise.

His repetition of the phrase becomes a practical mantra and a justification for saying just about anything he feels like saying.

The problem is the very real possibility that “Don’t hear what I’m not saying” is a copout made by a person who isn’t absolutely certain what he is saying. I’ve often used it as an angry retort; a response of frustration when my tongue is tied. Maybe he’s doing the same.

Saying “Don’t hear what I’m not saying” shifts blame for misunderstanding to the listener and implies that they are either reluctant to hear the message or have plugged their ears. It presupposes that the reader doesn’t get it, that the writer’s words are perfectly comprehensible and that the writer didn’t mean what you thought they meant – they MEANT something profound and moving and world-changing. If you didn’t get that, then you’re the one with the problem, not the writer.

The more times it’s repeated, the clearer it becomes to me that the writer – in this case Reggie McNeal – doesn’t want to take responsibility for what happens after people take hold of his prescription. That he’s washing his hands of the mess he’s stirred up. Sort of like what Pontius Pilate did after sending Jesus to the cross. I think, MISSIONAL RENAISSANCE, more than the other, is an attempt to rewrite history in order to manufacture evidence to support his contentions – and to sell books.

I’m not sure which irritates me more. While I have more to say on this, I’ll take it up in my next PIE post. But for now, I don’t think you can get any other message from what I’ve said above, so if you’ve heard it, it’s probably what I’m saying.


* institutionalization: The term institutionalization is widely used in social theory to denote the process of making something (for example a concept, a social role, particular values and norms, or modes of behavior) become embedded within an organization, social system, or society as an established custom or norm .

† Mike Duran, another and better thinker on this subject has this to say: (Begin here and follow the rest of the links to get a clear idea of his thesis.)

image: This image appears on the cover of MISSIONAL RENAISSANCE and is called "Vitruvian Man" -- Encyclopaedia Britannica online has this to say: "Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of the microcosm). Da Vinci believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe."

1 comment:

Mike Duran said...

One of the reasons I struggle so much with these post-modern / post-evangelical thinkers is not so much what they want the Church to become (more missional, socially-involved, multiculturally aware, etc.) it's the way they attempt to get there. Not only do emergents conveniently frame church history in a way to buttress their conclusion (i.e., the "real" Church is lost), but they use a broad brush to paint the contemporary Church, portraying religious institutions as irrelevant, impotent, power-hungry, and Spirit-less. The only reason to consider deconstructing the entire Church is if it's entirely corrupt, which is, I think, the conclusion post-evangelicals want us to reach. Appreciate your post and the link, Guy!