Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Theologizing with Tickle – 2 – Becoming Architects of the Future

Much of the postmodern theology that I've read, while I resonate at times with it, I find its reliance on deconstruction -- something that needs to be done at points -- leaves us with few resources for rebuilding.  It's a bit like our reliance on historical criticism.  We take apart the Bible, find all the parts that lack historical credibility, and then we're stuck with an underwhelming "demythologized" gospel that does us little good.  

Bruce Epperly is a Progressive theologian -- well to my left -- who understands this dilemma of Progressive/Liberal theology.  He understands the need to rebuild.  In this essay, which is a bit longer than usual, Bruce takes up a theme from Phyllis Tickle's latest book -- Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters --  and offers us a vision of what can occur for the church, if we take up the calling to be "architects of the future."  Take a read and offer your thoughts!

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Theologizing with Tickle – 2 – 
Becoming Architects of the Future
Bruce Epperly

Phyllis Tickle asserts that we have two options as we face the lightning fast changes in the current spiritual landscape: to be passive mediums or active architects.  Several decades earlier, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated much the same thing: in the context of radical environmental changes, organisms tend toward denial or passivity despite the fact there is another alternative, initiating novelty to match the novelty of the environment.   Healthy organisms and institutions are creative in responding to and anticipating change. Movements move; they are alive and innovative.  They become architects of both present and future.

Over the past several years, I have spoken with dozens of congregations about ways they can creatively respond to the changing spiritual landscape.  Congregations know that they need to change; they are beginning to recognize that they have denied or ignored the changes in culture, local environments, demographics, and spirituality for far too long.  Now they are asking themselves, from a position of numerical and demographic weakness, “Is it too late?”  They worry that now that they are ready to change, they will not have the resources to make changes necessary to become vital, growing, and mission-oriented congregations.  Often they take their feelings of desperation out on their pastors, wanting them to be magicians of transformation and impatient when growth is modest or membership remains static despite the pastor’s best efforts.  Unrealistic expectations regarding the ability of pastoral leadership – and pastors are not entirely blameless - to make significant changes without strong and active congregational support lead to conflicts between pastors and congregants.

What’s a congregation to do, especially when congregants are aging, tired, and anxious about limitations in their resources in time, talent, and treasure?  Change is difficult; it means letting go of familiar traditions to launch out into the depths creative transformation.  It means opening to resurrection and welcoming diversity.  I enjoy the sight and smell of roaring blaze in winter time.  But, the warmth and beauty of the fire is bought at the price of the transformation of the wood.  It is with good reason that the one of the members of the Hindu trinity, Shiva, is known as the “destroyer.” While we don’t need to destroy the traditions of our congregations, we must transform them in light of today’s permanent spiritual whitewater.

Creative response requires a theological vision and practices that embody the vision in congregational life and mission. 

Visionary Theology

Emergents, moderate, and progressive Christians are far too modest theologically.  Some of this is through lack of theologically-based teaching and preaching in congregations.  It is also a result of the failure of seminaries to provide future pastors with creative ways to convey complex theological ideas in accessible ways.  Moreover, at least among emerging and emergent Christians, there has been a bias toward the more apophatic, deconstructive approaches to theology, which provide virtually no positive theological affirmations to inspire creative change.  Faith lives by its affirmations not its negations; its creativity not its deconstruction. What is needed is humble, agile, and positive constructive theologies that enable us to interpret the events of our lives in ways that promote personal and congregational agency.

A humble theology can be constellated around the following affirmations, none of which presume to speak for all people or be fully settled theologically:

  • God is active in the historical and cosmic movements of the world.
  • God is present as a force for healing, wholeness, and creative transformation in every event.
  • Jesus of Nazareth reflects and reveals God’s aim at Shalom, healing, and wholeness.
  • The future is open and we have a role in shaping the future for good or ill.
  • Human life is part of a lively interdependent universe whose well-being is partly shaped by our actions.
  • Our vocation is to make a difference as God’s companions in healing the world.



Transforming Change

A theological vision that inspires agency, creativity, and imagination in response to God’s presence in the our lives serves as the foundation for congregational openness to change and prudent risk-taking, that is, well thought-out initiatives requiring us to leave our personal and institutional comfort zones and make decisions based on abundance rather than scarcity thinking.  Here are some steps that will enable congregations to be “architects of transformation” in their particular locales:

The first step to change is to recognize that the path ahead is through action – prudent risk taking – rather than passivity.  We can’t wait for change to come; we must become the change we seek, as the saying goes. The biblical tradition is an invitation to agency.  God seldom acts unilaterally but invites – and sometimes challenges – persons such as Moses, Esther, Peter, Paul, and the paralyzed man at the pool to go beyond their comfort zones, that is, to risk failure in order to be faithful.  God calls us to intentional acts of novelty to respond to the changes in our current spiritual environment.  Our actions can be the tipping point enabling God to realize God’s vision for us, our congregation, and the world.

The second step is move from scarcity to abundance thinking.  This is a profound theological issue that shapes congregational action.  Realism is essential to healthy decision-making. We must recognize that we only have five loaves and two fish and that we have spent the whole night fishing without catching anything.  But, over and over again, scripture proclaims a deeper realism: somehow when we open to possibilities just out of our grasp, five loaves and two fish feed a multitude and a great catch of fish is waiting for us to throw out our nets.

The third step is to discern the congregation’s calling or vocation in its particular environment.  This is the work of prayer.  Congregations that pray are vital and transformative – filled with life – whether or not they numerically grow.  Sadly, supernatural and magical understandings of prayer have gotten in the way of authentic congregational and personal prayer.  Our prayers make a difference in our lives, our congregations, and the world.  Prayer changes our souls but it may also change our cells.  Our prayers create an atmosphere of hope, expectation, and vitality.  When we expect God to be present in our lives and responsive to our prayers, unexpected bursts of energy emerge.

As congregations pray for guidance, members will notice synchronicities and greater energy and commitment to service and mission.  Prayer promotes agency rather than passivity among those who believe that the future is open and undecided and that our prayers can make a difference.  Our prayers help create a positive field of spiritual energy within the interdependence of life.  They are not all-determining, but contributory and participatory in promoting God’s realm of shalom, healing, and wholeness.

The fourth step is launch out with novel actions, most particular programs.  As congregations devote themselves to prayer, they gain a greater sense of possibility and vocation.  Today’s congregations must be programmatic architects, providing hospitality, lively worship, and programs for the broader community.  Congregational programs should be “both-and” in nature; nurturing the membership but reaching out to the community. Everything we do is mission.  Today, in addition to commitment to social transformation and Earth-care, congregations need to address the deepest concerns of their communities, many of which center around spirituality, healing, vocation, quality of life (parenting, healthy attitudes toward time, self-care), and theological reflection.  Explorations into the Bible need to be grounded in creative reflection, social concern, and honest scholarship.  We need to take the “unchurched” seriously in our studies, responding to their questions, critiques, and misconceptions.  Scripture is intended to be an adventure book, inviting us on a holy adventure, and not a catalogue of inflexible and outmoded doctrines.

The fifth step is to embrace diverse approaches to spirituality, worship, and education.  Healthy communities encourage novelty and innovation in response to the novelties of our environment, most especially our ever-changing spiritual landscape.  Our practices must be global as well as local and innovative as well as traditional.  Today, anyone with cable television and an internet connection is a global citizen, with access to literally thousands of religious movements and spiritual practices as well as scientific findings.  This, in and of itself, should inspire congregations to be bold – yet intellectually and spiritually astute – in integrating diverse approaches to global worship, spirituality, and reflection.

Christianity is the object of much negativity, especially among young adults many of whom who see Christianity as intolerant, hypocritical, anti-woman, homophobic, anti-scientific, and – worst of all – irrelevant.  We need to address these concerns in the spirit of openness and hospitality, enabling them to find spiritual homes on their pilgrim pathways. We are called to be architects of the future, invited to create agile and relevant programs and liturgies – responsive to the deepest dreams, hopes, and needs – of persons in our pluralistic age.


Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty four books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in the Postmodern World.His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventerous Theology for a Missional Church.He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary.  He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.   He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.  His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

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