Saturday, July 16, 2011

More Clarity, Less Labeling

Emerging ... Emergent ... Religious Right ... Postmodern ... Post-Christian ... Social Justice ... Universalism ... Community ... Missional ...

Labels are easy to put on people and "movements" but my experience has been that most of us who stick the labels on things (and, yes, I have been guilty of doing just that) may not understand exactly what the labels mean. To attach labels to people or ideas without intimate knowledge of the people or their ideas is to engage in sloganeering -- bumper sticker argumentation -- that doesn't get anyone anywhere. Seriously, has anyone ever changed your mind -- or have you ever changed anyone else's mind -- about anything by trading slogans or by failing to listen before you speak.

Neither have I.

Secondly, attaching labels to people or "movements" is dangerous because we may be labeling things using different terms. It is unwise -- and unfair -- to hold someone accountable to an idea they don't believe in simply because you have labeled them with your definition of that that idea.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

There will be more (much more, I suspect) to follow on this subject but I want to connect two parallel issues that have just converged for me where this is concerned. These are two issues that, until I sought clarification about them, I did not even realize were related.

The first is about a person -- a guy whom I have respected even if I haven't really known him personally -- who had a great, positive influence on my oldest son when he was in high school. His name is Chris Marshall and he was a Bible teacher and pastor at my son's school. He started a home church many years ago that my son attended for Bible study and to share a sense of community with his classmates. For reasons that I never fully understood (and still don't) this whole "home church" idea, and Chris Marshall himself, became a source of controversy. Some ideas Chris was espousing were seen as unorthodox, if not downright heretical. Chris was labeled a "postmodernist" and thereby took on all the baggage and assumptions that go with that label. He wrote a blog at the time that many of his "labelers" took exception to. Even Chris has since admitted that he probably crossed some boundaries on his blog and that he could have handled some things differently, but to be honest, those issues are not my concern.

There is way more to the story but the bottom line is that the high school and Chris came to a mutual agreement that it was time for him to go. He moved on and has continued in ministry. He kept writing his blog and I began reading it periodically. Chris seemed a bit more "liberal" in his worldview than I was -- a bit unorthodox in his views of church and the way we live out our Christianity -- but I never read anything that made me cringe. In fact, I never read anything that I even found to be the least bit objectionable. Chris just seemed to have a point of view I had never heard or considered before. Yet, the label Chris lived with remained even as the whole story never made sense to me. Recently, his name started resurfacing in places I didn't expect to see it. And, because I still respected and appreciated the impact Chris had on my son, I decided to resort to a radical way of trying to resolve these conundrums in my own mind.

I went and talked to Chris Marshall.

Crazy, I know.

Our conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I was fascinated by much of what Chris had to say. I heard more background on his story, and have since learned even more (read Chris's background story at his blog here: The Wild Goose). I even learned things from Chris about my own son's heart for others that I had never really known. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chris and I probably agree on more things than we disagree on. I found that he had some unique ways of approaching how we "do church," and about how we share our faith. It would be silly to say that some miraculous new friendship was born that morning, and I can only speak for myself, but I came away from our conversation feeling like I had been missing out on a relationship with someone from whom I had much to learn.

Which brings me to my second point.

Christian apologetics -- defending the truth of Christianity -- has been a passion of mine for many years now. If I read a book, it's theme is usually apologetics-related. And I read lots of books. I have had limited success teaching and talking to small (and a few large) groups of people about apologetic topics like: origins of the universe and life, biology, biochemistry, intelligent design, pro-life issues, miracles, morality, the reliability of the Bible, or relativism. I have gone to training seminars to better myself, not only in my level of knowledge about these topics, but in how to present the information. I have even had some published articles on these topics in some highly reputable outlets for such discussions.

Tangible positive results from my efforts? Not so much.

My attempts to address these issues with young men and women are motivated by what I consider to be a scary statistic -- that 75% of them walk away from the faith once they leave home -- and I want to do my part to address that statistic. I want to help them be able "to give a reason for the hope that they have." But lecturing them or showing them a powerpoint slide show is not cutting it with a vast majority of these young folks. I have felt like a complete failure at times or at least felt like I was unable to connect for some lasting impact. Overall, I began to question my methods and whether or not I am even gifted enough at doing apologetics to consider my efforts worthwhile.

I've been looking for a new way to make the case. A new way to make these philosophical and sometimes nuanced discussions relevant. A new way to help people who are really seeking answers find the applicable information, remember it, and apply it to their lives. I even began writing a book proposal for an idea I've had to connect the truth claims and foundational issues of Christianity with the ways we live our lives in the real world. I do this because I think it's too important to just keep doing the same thing while expecting a better result, but never getting it. The thing is that I don't seem to see many other apologists making inroads in these areas either. It's frustrating.

That's when I talked to Chris Marshall. And then I read the second installment in his latest blog post about some awakenings he has had lately (You can read that here: The Wild Goose, Pt. 2) about what has been labeled the "Emergent Church" and some of its leaders. What I found is that Chris Marshall shares my heart for seekers and my passion for honoring the heart of the Christian faith. Not only so, but Chris has found a way to do exactly what I have thought needs to be done -- a way to reach what seems like a "whatever" culture with the Truth of our mutual faith (more on both of these topics later in another post).

We may have arrived at our point of connection from wildly differing paths and points of view. We may completely disagree on some specific issues. I honestly don't have a clue. But what I know is that Chris Marshall and I are on a shared mission. Maybe we will complement one another's efforts in that mission. Maybe we'll continue down parallel paths. But in the end, we are headed toward the same goal because we share a commitment to the same Savior.

I have a lot to learn from Chris Marshall. And I never would have known that if I had just accepted the labels. We don't need labels. We need clarity so that we can find commonality.

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