Interviewed by Tamara Cissna
Len Sweet, futurist and best-selling author, is the lead mentor of the seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Leadership in the Emerging Culture program. Calling on his understanding of postmodern ideals and his years as a mentor to pastors, he shares his insights into
GEORGE FOX JOURNAL: What is the emergent church?
LEN SWEET: It probably would mean something different to everyone you would ask, but from my perspective, the “emergent church” is an ongoing conversation about how new times call for new churches, and that the mortar- happy church of the last half of the 20th century is ill-poised to face the promises and perils of the future. In fact, attempting to define the “emergent church” betrays the essence of the movement because the emergent consciousness questions the notion that there is such a thing. Rather, there are only individual emerging churches that are missional in orientation that grow out of the indigenous soils in which they are planted. In other words, no two emerging churches are alike.
GFJ: Are there some common practices in emerging churches?
LEN SWEET: Pews are now antiques. Since the focus of emerging churches is on community, their worship space is flexible. Some have tables and chairs. Others have a more living room look and feel. But emerging churches are proving to be very surprising. For example, hymns are now back. And the church’s liturgy and Eucharist are being rediscovered in creative and compelling ways. A lot of emerging churches are very “smells and bells” in their worship. Whatever the diversity of spiritual practices, the key words for emerging churches are incarnational, missional, and relational.
GFJ: Can you explain those key terms?
LEN SWEET: I’ll try ... although books literally have been written on each.
• Incarnational: That means that Christianity does not go through time like water in a straw. It passes through cultural prisms and historical periods, which means that Christianity is organic. And like with any living thing, in order for things to stay the same, they have to change. There are some who think that Christianity is meant to stand in and for itself as a bounded discourse, impervious to cultural influences. That’s one reason it took the Vatican 300 years to come around to heliocentrism: the idea that the sun, not the earth, was at the center.
• Missional: Does the church face inward or outward? A missional church faces outward toward the world, not like a porcupine stands against its enemies, but like water fills every container without losing its content. In fact, many in the emerging church reject the dichotomy between the church and the world . For too long, churches have faced inward, offering religion as a benefits package — something that “meets my needs” or offers good outcomes.
I tell churches to look at their mission statement. Many of them are no more than self-statements, not mission statements. This is how you can tell. Is your mission statement based on how to get people to go into the world, or how to get more people to come to church? The missional mantra that people are saying today is this: The church is measured, not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.
• Relational: The gospel is all about the formation of community. The individualistic “meet my needs” orientation is seen as antagonistic to the ministry of Jesus. The African word ubuntu is often used, which literally means “It takes a ‘we’ to make a ‘me.’’ Emerging churches are discovering the “we” part of “me.”
GFJ: So it’s the incarnational characteristic of emerging churches that threatens its critics. Some remark that when churches try to become “relevant,” they really mean “relative.” True?
LEN SWEET: There is all too much panic over that word relative. I believe in absolute truth (which I believe, by the way, is Jesus the Christ, the way, the truth, the life — notice here that absolute truth is not abstract truth, but incarnate truth). The notion that there are no absolutes is self-defeating and self-contradictory.
Not all truth is absolute. Some truth is relative — to a person, to a culture, to a historical period. What brings together absolute truth and relative truth is relational truth.
GFJ: Then you are not connecting the concept of relative truth with the idea that it’s equally valid to choose any of the “many paths to God.” What are some examples of relative truth that you do endorse?
LEN SWEET: Relativism is illogical and selfdefeating. If all truth is relative, what is the truth status of the assertion that all truth is relative? What I am trying to do is end the apartheid of absolutism and relativism in Christian theology. I am a relative absolutist. That means that absolute truth has to become incarnate in relative time. Faith is for the living of this hour, and the Bible has reference to and relevance for the living of this hour.
The world in which Jesus came could not conceive of a world without slavery. In fact, the ancient economy was based on slavery. Jesus did not deal violently with human nature and first-century culture. He did not go about brandishing “absolute truth.” He dealt tenderly and patiently with the culture and people of his day. If he was harsh with anyone, it was the religious establishment. By regulating our treatments of others, and rejiggering our thinking about others, Jesus led us inexorably into a place where things like slavery and polygamy were abolished.
Just as absolute truth had to be made relative to the culture in which it was first proclaimed, so absolute truth today must be made relative to our day and to our 21st-century culture.
GFJ: How are emerging churches any more relational than evangelical mainstream churches? Isn’t this what small groups are all about?
LEN SWEET: Much of the evangelical mainstream makes small groups a program of the church. It’s an add-on, or a drive-through. In emerging churches, community is constitutive of their identity. It’s the very essence of who they are. There is also a relational component of the theology of the emerging church, where truth is seen more in relational than in propositional terms. After all, God didn’t send us a principle. God sent us a person. God didn’t send us a statement. God sent us a savior . . . who is Christ the Lord.
GFJ: How are emerging churches distinctively missional?
LEN SWEET: Karl Rahner, the great 20thcentury Catholic theologian, referred to what he called Thermos-bottle Christianity. This is a form of pseudo-church where you keep everything inside warm and cozy and fresh, but let the outside freeze and take care of itself. Missional churches are focused on what God is doing in the world. Their circles face outward, not inward. This is a culture that loves gated communities, and there are gated churches to match. Missional churches are putting back together what for too long has been rent asunder: the whole gospel, both the personal gospel (evangelism), and the social gospel (justice and kingdom ministries).
GFJ: Please elaborate on what it means to promote justice and kingdom ministries. Can you share a few examples?
LEN SWEET: It seems like every other week I have a favorite book. But for a few months now my favorite book has been Greg Paul’s God in the Alley. Greg is pastor of a church in Toronto called Sanctuary, a community of people who have covenanted with each other to focus on the people who live and work on the streets of Toronto: the homeless, drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes, etc. There are other churches similarly focused on peace or on hunger. Woodman Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs adopted a squatter camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, and sends youth and others there to help elevate these poorest places on our planet.
GFJ: Finally, why might a pastor of an emerging church tell me I should follow Christ? And so what if I don’t?
LEN SWEET: Everybody follows someone. We all give our lives to something. The only questions are who, or what? I invite you to give your life to Jesus.
I like how philosopher Dallas Willard does it: He challenges his students to the reality test: Put Jesus into practice.
Go ahead. Got someone better than Jesus in mind to follow? OK, try someone else first. Put Sigmund Freud into practice. Put Charles Darwin into practice. Put Karl Marx into practice. Put Aristotle into practice. Put Plato into practice. Put Pablo Picasso into practice.
The only who or what that can stand up to the reality test is Jesus the Christ, who is bold enough to say to each of us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
There’s only one reason to follow Christ: Truth. Truth or consequences. GFJ