Hospitality, not marketing


As a Disciples of Christ pastor drawn to the emergent conversation, I’m excited about the enthusiasm surrounding the advent of [D]mergent. But I must also admit that my enthusiasm is a bit guarded. While the conversations I’ve had with several other Disciples who identify with emergence Christianity have been incredibly encouraging, I’ve also had far too many conversations with church leaders who view emergence as the latest trend or fad in which mainliners can get young people in the pews, treating it as nothing more than a church growth gimmick. While some of these conversations are more implicit than others, the logic can basically be summarized as this:

(1) Many young evangelicals are leaving their theological roots and are looking for more progressive approaches to the Christian faith;

(2) Mainline churches have a wonderful opportunity of connecting with these young evangelicals because we tend to express the kind of progressive theological ethos they are looking for;

(3) Connecting with these young evangelicals will help strengthen the struggling institutions that we’ve been worried about for so long, and emergents can start carrying on the work we’ve been doing for all of these years (and we can rest assured that the institution we’ve known and loved for so many years will continue on just as we like it).

The first two items are certainly true. Young evangelicals are leaving their roots, and they are looking for communities of faith that express progressive approaches to Christianity. It is definitely in the best interest of progressive congregations to consider the ways they are gifted to offer hospitality to these folks. However, progressives need to be very careful about the problems that come into play if they do this from the mentality described in item three.

For example, we’ve had an emerging community rooted in our church for nearly five years. It was originally started as an effort to extend hospitality to those who have been hurt and alienated by the church and are longing for a more open and inclusive approach to the Christian faith. This emerging community embodies a wonderful place of healing and transformation for many young evangelicals who are cultivating their faith in ways that are new for them, and it has certainly added to the overall life and vitality of our congregation.

However, several of us are beginning to notice that over the last year or so, more and more church members are beginning to wonder when these new participants will begin serving on committees and attending established activities like Sunday School or Disciple Women’s Ministry groups. We’re also hearing more and more murmurs about the way the newer folks don’t contribute financially like the established folks do. And while I am all for cultivating healthy patterns of stewardship (as well as deconstructing myths that established members sometimes live by!), I do wonder if we are forgetting the reasons why we started an emerging community in the first place and are running the risk of using it only as a vehicle in which the congregation might continue as a viable institution in the years ahead.

What is often lost in such situations is the recognition that the congregation is actually continuing on in quite vital ways — just not necessarily in the ways that many established folk expect. The truth of the matter is that the newer participants have built strong bonds of community and have organically developed several engaging ways of cultivating their faith, it’s just that these activities don’t look like the norm, at least not from the vantage point of the established participants. Instead of attending Sunday School, for instance, they meet each Friday at a local fair trade coffee house for theological conversation. Instead of serving on the outreach committee in order to decide what organizations the church budget should support, they developed a community food garden and an anti-racism/pro-reconciliation task force. Instead of serving on the worship committee in order to help set the deacon’s schedule, they gathered for lunch and creatively brainstormed ways that poetry and art from the community could be incorporated into worship.

When progressive congregations extend hospitality to emergents, they shouldn’t view such gestures as tools to further the existing establishment; rather, they need to open themselves to the new things that God is doing and celebrate the ways that emergents — [D]mergents — are helping transform the existing establishment. It’s the difference between hospitality (being open to the other) and marketing (trying to exploit the other for one’s personal gain). To borrow Karen Lebacqz’s words, the “church that genuinely welcomes the stranger does not simply let the stranger into a preformed routine, but accepts that the routine itself may be changed. We cannot cling to the past, or to the way things have always been done, because to do so is to deny the validity of the stranger’s way of being.”

by Phil Snider

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Springfield, Missouri and the coauthor of Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations. He is a graduate of Missouri State University (B.S.), Phillips Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Chicago Theological Seminary (D.Min.).

Phil blogs at www.philsnider.net.

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6 thoughts on “Hospitality, not marketing

      • Lana,
        We published Doug’s comment as its own post to seed another conversation on its own merit due to the awesome you pointed out. Thank you for your support.

  1. At the risk of sounding terribly old school, let me ask a simple question. How do emergent communities support themselves? If they are “nested” within an existing congregation, who is providing the financial support? If they are “on their own,” how do they pay the bills? I do understand that as the church changes, the structures change, but financial demands go on.

    On another note, when a congregation asks, “When will they start serving on committees?,” It seems that the root of that question is one of taking responsibility for the future of the church. Whoever those newer folk are (leaving all talk of actual membership aside), their insights and visions for the church are important. Their participation in the existing structures can eventually lead to new ways of being church, but not unless they get involved in the church that currently exists.

    I long for, and am afraid of, the church that yet can be. Help me understand how it can happen.

  2. Pamela — Thanks so much for your insightful questions. I struggle with the same ones a lot myself, and I think they are the very ones that established congregations need to ask. Part of the struggle that those of us in established circles have in relationship to the emergent conversation is that our institutions continually have a stake in the matter, whereas a lot of the exciting things that have taken place in emergent circles just happened, kind of spontaneously, without need of structure or institution. So financial demands have been a bit different in those contexts. Unfortunately, it seems to me, mainliners are all too often prone to first think preservation of institution rather than incarnation of the gospel. Many emergents haven’t had the kinds of structural concerns on their radar screens that many of us from mainline traditions have. Yet at the same time, several emergents have been drawn to the theological approaches held dear in mainline churches, so they have slowly gravitated in those directions, and are beginning to have to deal with such questions also. It seems to me that they aren’t interested in a lot of the baggage that they associate with institutional structures (of course, neither are a bunch of established folks!). It’s not that they are against institutions — not at all — so long as the institution is about furthering its mission and purpose as opposed to existing for the sake of existing, and there is a big difference. It’s one thing for the institution to continue in order to embody and extend the gospel, yet it’s quite another thing for the institution to continue just to perpetuate its own existence. Most of the people I know in the emergent conversation — including several who attend the church where I am a pastor — are eager to support missional activities that are making a difference (including financial support), they just don’t want to waste their time with things that are only about perpetuating the existing institution for no other reason that its continued existence. I know that serving on a committee is often viewed as the means to making a difference in the church, but maybe we need to consider more expansive ways of cultivating space for the conversation to take place. My post wasn’t intended to frown upon committees and such, but rather to say that we need to be open to ‘other’ ways of doing church as well. To use another type of example: In my congregation, DWM is one of our most vital ministries, and I wouldn’t for one second want to see it disbanded. But very, very, very few of our newer participants are interested in DWM. So how can we make space for them in ways that honor what they bring to the table, even if it means they may not be the ones who will continue on our cherished DWM ministries? DWM is outstanding, but we shouldn’t expect emergents who gravitate toward our churches to want to preserve our cherished activities, even though they’ve meant a lot to us. But instead of seeing this as an indictment upon what many of us hold dear, we can actually view it as part of the growth and transformation of the church on a larger scale.

    Some emergent communities are nested in mainline churches, and stewardship issues are certainly a concern. Things just don’t magically appear or happen! But as is usually the case, people will support congregations and activities that make a difference, whether ’emergent’ or not. So I would encourage our congregations to consider how we might incarnate the gospel on the ground in authentic ways. If we’re doing that, then everything else will follow (consider the lilies of the field…).

    I am a defender of the purpose that institutions can serve, and I don’t think it is possible to write them off. All movements eventually institutionalize themselves in one way or another, precisely in the hopes of continuing their mission and purpose. The critical question to ask is always about whether the institution is trying to be faithful to the event that forged it or simply to the perpetuation of the institution itself. I’m not sure what the answer is to this dilemma, but I’m glad we’re having the conversation and I would love to hear other responses! 🙂

  3. Thanks, Phil. You spell out some very helpful considerations.

    I am part of a new church in Berkeley, CA, deliberately named “Tapestry Ministries” because a fundamental idea of ours is that when anyone new comes into our community, they are a new “thread” that winds itself into the existing tapestry. This results in the tapestry changing with each new emerging thread.

    We’ve been at it for a little over two years now. It has been a vibrant, exciting journey. We find that we are constantly readjusting, and that makes it an incredible adventure. But we also find that it is not always easy.

    Thanks for clarifying the motives and expectations involved.

    – Bill Shive

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