Last week over 50 from our fellowship made the annual sojourn to their Mecca in Columbus for the Xenos Summer Institute. With an impressive line-up of speakers ranging from professors to practitioners and the timely topic of being “True to the Word, True to our Mission,” the 2008 conference promised to deal with the tensions of being biblically faithful and culturally relevant in our postmodern world.
The first night Dennis McCallum delivered sobering statistics about the American church’s failure to get the job of reconciliation done. He left the audience with several keys to victory: forsaking political agitation which comes to be identified with Christianity, abandoning legalism which is both unbiblical and unattractive, making real friendships with non-Christians, unapologetically preaching the Word, and making disciples via real engagement with people’s lives. “It’s not a popularity contest,” he concluded about church growth.
Next up was Mark Driscoll, the ex-emergent “swearing pastor” of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Most of NeoXenos sat right next to where he stood offstage.
“Oh my God! It’s him!” Mike Huddock squealed like a teenage girl at a Backstreet Boys concert.
Driscoll did not disappoint. His edgy teaching, sprinkled with sarcasm and pop-culture-filled rants, described missional ministry, a precursor to evangelism in which we get a read on the culture. Working from Acts 17, he laid out four principles of missionary ministry: Go, See, Feel, Do. Rather than outline the somewhat rudimentary concepts, I will highlight his most insightful ideas. Driscoll argued for the strategic importance of doing church in cities, as that’s where culture is made. Usefully, he referred to idols as “functional saviors,” stating that “behind every idol is a need for the gospel.” He followed with a list of soul-convicting questions to unveil our personal idols and emphasized repentance as vital to the gospel. He argued for seeking to reach Jesus needs rather than felt needs. And he used the illustration of wielding a closed hand for the big issues we’re willing to contend for, and maintaining an open hand for showing how the gospel is relevant through contextualization.
The next morning’s sessions could have been titled “Emerging Church 101” as Driscoll and D.A. Carson both delivered their assessment of the emerging church. In short, evangelicals agree with emergents that there has been a transition toward pluralism and that we need to assume a missionary posture in our home culture, but we disagree about the changes we should make. Emergents are open to changing their message and methods, while evangelicals will only move on the latter. In short, emergents are mainly ex-fundies who, disenchanted with the legalism and consumerism of the traditional church, are creating their own structure of pick-and-choose spirituality. “Same whore, new dress,” Driscoll described their reworked consumerism. Driscoll ended with a call to humility and repentance regarding the truth in emegents’ critiques.
Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, followed with revisions to his Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church and a call to “be faithful to what the Bible says are ‘matters of first importance.’” His most valuable point, which coincides with our desire for a grace awakening, was to be careful what we’re passionate about, because that’s what people learn. “If you assume the gospel but become passionate about apologetics of cultural sensitivity,” Carson says, we’re in trouble. He left with a challenge to study the word gospel throughout the New Testament to regain a thoroughly biblical understanding of the familiar term.
In the well-attended breakout session “Emergent Meets Evangelical Dialogue,” Dennis McCallum conversed with two people from the Central Ohio Emergent Cohort. The session was frustrating because of the guests’ ambiguity, but it is perhaps the best way to understand the nature and dangers of the movement. Their conversation is built on false dichotomies: between omniscience and any capacity to know, between theology and praxis, between truth and experience. This last was most effectively refuted in Carson’s plenary session Thursday night.
Listen to Carson’s “Biblical Reflection on Truth and Experience.” Take notes. Listen to it again. It is at once intellectually demanding, hermeneutically rigorous, and substantially practical. He takes the audience from Hebrew poetic parallelism through a seventh-grade gum-chewing reprimand to the ethical-ontological paradoxes of 1 John. He acknowledges the cultural baggage we bring to a text, one of postmodernism’s best points, and looks to genre as a key to unlocking meaning in the Bible. In the polarities of wisdom literature we can see the absolutism of God’s nature (truth), while in narratives we are reminded of both our brokenness and usefulness to God (experience).
Scott Arnold, who leads an urban sphere in Xenos, followed with content that pierced the heart of the emergent’s complaint that evangelicals don’t practice the gospel by caring for the poor. His teaching was mostly descriptive and historical, but provided a valuable context to Gary DeLashmutt’s closing address Friday night.
Mark Mittelberg, co-author of Becoming a Contagious Christian and author of Choosing Your Faith, offered useful categories for understanding how people choose a worldview and strategies for reaching them. In his second session, he laid out eight basic beliefs we should operate from in evangelism. He illustrated with the classic Bridge to Life drawing, but added a cultural chasm, among other elements. The teaching was solid and served as a good reminder of familiar fare for Xenoids.
DeLashmutt closed the conference with a dynamic call to “Adorning the Gospel.” He dubbed the emergent church the “unpaid bill” of evangelicals in reference to social engagement, and confessed the discovery that Xenos does not have a good reputation in many communities. Then he followed the theme of good deeds throughout Titus, with Titus 3:14 as the key verse: “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful.” His balanced handling showed good deeds affect the spread of the gospel as they enhance the attractiveness of its message, just as cosmetics draw attention to natural beauty. His practical suggestions should be considered by each of us as we seek to be faithful to God’s Word and fruitful in ministry.
In conclusion, the resolution to being culturally relevant without compromise was the same in every teaching: the gospel is still relevant. God’s Word is always true and always powerful. Thoughtful communication and compassion demonstrated in good deeds can portray God’s love to people at odds with truth, and God honors biblical faithfulness. As Dennis pointed out, “church is not a popularity contest,” so thankfully Christ promised: “I will build my church.”