It was my first wedding anniversary and I was stuck in the worst place imaginable -- a seminary classroom. I was wrapping up my final week of Youth Ministry Certification School at Wartburg Seminary, listening to Dr. Nathan Frambach talk about “post-modernism”. I didn’t care about the topic and I didn’t want to be there. For some reason, however, my frustration turned to curiosity. “If this post-modernism thing is real,” I thought, “it should be a no-brainer for Lutherans.”
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In the past few years, the emerging church has become the unofficial branch of post-modern Christians. The lack of organizational structure or defining documents makes the emerging church movement undoubtedly post-modern, and also extremely difficult to talk about. My quest to find a singular definition of emerging church has yielded zero results. The best explanation I’ve seen is in the Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger manifesto Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005):
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
To which I reply – “Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans!” As a group of Christians who are willing to acknowledge the complexity of faith, we are wired to thrive in a post-modern world. Lutherans live in the tension between sinner and saint; between the shared absolutes of Word-alone, grace-alone, and Christ-alone. We rely on the redemptive power of God’s grace and use it as fuel for a life of selfless giving in response to this gift. Our reliance on ancient, sacred practices helps us embrace the importance of mystery and history, while simultaneously being compelled by the power of the Gospel to act in the here-and-now.
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If my eight years as a youth minister and six years as a father have taught me anything, it’s that religion must be focused on commonalities. No two Christians agree on everything; but every Christian agrees on most things. We have been on a 500-year detour since the Reformation that has brought far more division than union to the church. We see disagreements as the end of a conversation and not the beginning of a new layer of discourse. There are thousands of denominations worldwide, each offering their own niche of Christianity, but none of them fully whole because they are defined by distinctions with “those other” Christians.
This is why I think that our future as a denomination depends on our ability to engage the emerging church conversation. Consider the emerging church conversation to be the next wave of the ecumenical movement. Over the course of the last decade, the ELCA has entered into full-communion agreements with six other denominations. These agreements have given post-modern Lutherans a strong foundation with which to build other partnerships. Emerging groups from every major protestant tribe -- Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians -- have found ways to be the body of Christ that honor the uniqueness of each other’s traditions while celebrating a shared passion for the Great Commission. These faith communities are not creating watered-down versions of their proud churches. They are, instead, teaching each other the beauty of religious diversity that is both gospel-centric and mission-focused. They are doing God’s work together, as a response to the gift of God’s grace.
Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans.