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Barton GingerichMay 22, 2012
Emergents find difficulty in sharing their deconstructive theology with the young. (Photo credit: Pubhist)
At Calvary Baptist Church in the nation’s capital, liberal evangelicals recently met to discuss “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity” (CYNKC). Sporting a TED-style speaker setup combined with workshops, CYNKC provided an eclectic feast of Evangelical Leftist ideas. Although Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Mennonite organizations helped sponsor the event, most of the heavy-hitting speakers identified with the emergent church movement. Presenters and listeners alike struggled with passing their postmodern deconstructive theology on to their children.
CYNKD founder and chair Dave Csinos hoped the conference would provide “a new revolution in youth and children’s ministry.” He asked: “How do we pass on our faith without the baggage that forced us to reevaluate things?” Master of ceremonies Melvin Bray similarly cajoled the congregation into “asking new questions,” to look out for “how to hand down the biblical narrative differently now than when we were children.”
Simple Way community member Janell Anema shared her reflective memoir on being raised in “American Christianity,” a particularly corny form of evangelicalism matched with utilitarian soteriology. Referring to 1950s Sunday School kitsch, she recalled, “I asked ‘dreamy Jesus’ to enter my heart.” The following years she would offer “obsessive compulsive” repetitions of the Sinner’s Prayer. Anema reminisced on how she grew rich in the “religious currency” of the church which made her feel “informed, fashionable, equipped.” She admitted: “I loved the militarism of my faith. It was rigid…ritualistic, and I was on the winning team.”
Anema preached that “militaristic isolationist Christianity” could not address the “deep pain of humanity.” She was grateful to have found rest in her “theological boyfriends:” Brian McLaren, John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas. In conclusion, she solemnly announced: “I can still be really good at this ‘New Kind of Christianity’…[with] merit badges of pacifism, protest, and abandoned portions of empire.”
Emergent guru Brian McLaren offered his reflections on postmodernism and the challenge of parenthood. He described how the world faced a new challenge after the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s: a cultural landscape best described as postmodern, post-industrial, post-colonial, and post-Communist. This paralyzed leadership in governments and churches alike, since “they don’t like change coming.” McLaren keenly observed that, in the classroom, paradigm shifts affect children least and youth most. In the Christian context, he noticed “parents want to recreate their own childhood church experience…[They want] to raise their brood in a familiar and safe nest.”
McLaren reported that Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals are facing or will soon suffer a significant drop-out rate of young members. This “ecclesiastical suicide” portends that “future congregational life is going to change from its present and past forms.” He presented a historical picture of the united medieval church facing the modern crisis, only to split into liberal and conservative camps. Nevertheless, the postmodern turn deconstructed the Enlightenment and now calls for a completely “new kind” of Christianity.
With this prognostication in mind, McLaren confidently declared, “[Conservatives and liberals] are on these ‘superior’ paths to irrelevance.” Hearkening back to the earlier days of the emergent movement, he confessed, “We hadn’t figured out our own script, so we couldn’t pass it on to the kids.” Now the leaders of this “new kind of Christianity” need to be “reclaiming dropouts and promoting retention.”
McLaren critiqued current strategies to win over and keep young people in the church. He questioned passing on a form of the Christian faith that “no longer works for increasing numbers of adults.” In a fit of “post-peak depression,” concerned church leaders have experimented with various church models. “Most [of those] experiments are about style and not substance,” McLaren complained. “The Christian faith always evolves. Evolution is always conservative; evolution is always progressive,” he asserted, “Evolution is always optional; evolution is always possible.”
Calling for a “theological detoxification” where there is a “God and the Bible beyond violence," McLaren declared: “Now politicians are speaking like preachers have for decades.” More controversially, he argued, “Christians will blow up the world. The people most likely to lead the Holocaust are Christians. The people most likely to push the button to drop nuclear bombs are Christians.” He also worried, “There are Bible verses lying around like loaded guns.” Next, McLaren touted a “Christian identity formation—without hostility.” Such a feat would produce “an us-ness that welcomes other-ness.” He encouraged lifelong spiritual formation, doctrinal reformation, rebranding, and a sustainable regenerative system of church economy.
The emergent camp of Christians has finally come of age. Mostly composed of the Millennial generation, disaffected evangelicals are hitting their late twenties and early thirties. They now face a new challenge for their theology: children. How does a theology devoted to deconstruction get passed on to kids? Nuance and intellectualism appeal to certain sets of adolescents and adults, but they tend to confuse or bore the young. Once cannot simply teach his child, “Do not be a conservative evangelical” and expect to have truly offered them the faith passed down from the saints. Csinos and others from the Evangelical Left believe they can find something affirmative to teach their children that also meets the requirements of the Christian faith. McLaren ominously informed his audience, “We’re on the ground floor of something very important.”
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