Seeking Common Ground

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Seeking Common Ground

We know well what it means for people to be dissatisfied with Christianity, or to blurt out “I’m finished!” and publicly walk away. I’ve even heard people proclaim that the term “Christian” has been so torn apart in the battle-to-the-death between liberals and conservatives that there’s no longer any point in using the term at all. Should we all be post-Christian now?

Yet some of us are still hanging in there. In fact, in the midst of the increasing skepticism, a number of good things are happening. For one, more people are speaking up about what’s wrong with the institutional church, making bolder calls for it to change and adapt. This is good. Don’t forget that Christianity has its heritage in the Jewish prophets, who took the religious institutions of their day to task for a multitude of sins. And the first-century rabbi whom Christians follow modeled himself on the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It’s high time for a more prophetic, more counter-cultural Christian faith.

Knowing the Doubts from the Inside…

Perhaps the best thing that’s happening is that those of us who remain are beginning to get it. We realize that “cultural Christianity” — religious belief and practice that’s “just obvious” because it’s been inherited from one’s parents and culture — is largely a thing of the past. The burden is now on believers to show why their tradition is still relevant in today’s world. As we know, many of our friends and critics doubt that it still is.

The ones who are best at speaking to a generation grown skeptical about religion are the ones who have felt the force of the criticisms, up close and personal. They are producing courageous (and widely read) manifestos for the future — books like Tony Jones’ The New Christians, Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, Diana Butler Bass‘s Christianity for the Rest of Us, and Brian McLaren‘s Everything Must Change.

The sad thing is: much of the institutional church is going to turn its back on this new generation of spiritual seekers. It will declare them too heretical, or it will find their questions too troubling. It will ask them to shut up and sing the old hymns.

In some ways, these new Christians expected that. They are meeting in homes, in office buildings, in pubs … and even in churches, when they are welcome there. They are finding what it means to form deep communities, to practice deep discipleship … and then to sort out the beliefs as they go. Soon, I predict, this new movement will begin to dwarf some of the more traditional forms of religious expression.

What to Call This Movement?

Years ago they were called “Jesus People.” More recently people have been talking excitedly about the “emerging church” movement. Brian McLaren describes it as a “generous orthodoxy” and “a new kind of Christianity.”

However you describe it, the movement breaks with the religious politics of division and calls for a return to a “big tent Christianity.” “Big tent” evokes the image of the revival tent that folks used to set up just outside of town. Here differences were (in theory) set aside while people sought transformation and a new direction in their faith. If you’re skeptical, follow it on the web and judge for yourself. People will be live-blogging the next “Big Tent” conference this Sept. 8-9 in Raleigh, NC, and many of the (mostly younger) leaders of the movement will be speaking.

“Big tent” is also a prophetic challenge to the rancorous debates and condemnations that are the public face of religion today. The Religious Left and the Religious Right look more and more like Washington: people sit on one side of the aisle or the other; everything they say and do seems to play just to their own party members. More and more of those in the younger generations are tired of the combative attitude. They look for something different, something more positive, from Christian faith.

What Do Emerging Christians Believe? Is It Biblical?

Let’s name the really contentious issue. The criticism one most frequently hears is that all the emergent church really stands for is a kind of lukewarm, perhaps slightly updated liberal theology. Is it true?

Although conservatives frequently make this charge, it does not seem to be accurate of the movement. Think of the “Emergent Conventions” that took place over the last decade, or the “Emergent Theological Conversations” that have continued, featuring theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann as discussion partners. Whether at the larger meetings, or the high-volume websites such as, or in small-group meetings around the country, I see young men and women deeply concerned, almost obsessed, with theological issues.

Neither their approach nor their conclusions fit the classic definition of liberal theology. They do not start with a clear philosophical position and then mould Christianity to fit. Their interest is not confined to the human dimension and implications of the faith. I find people preoccupied with Jesus’ enduring question, “Who do you say I am?” (Mt. 16:15). That humans are imperfect and in need of divine grace, that Jesus is unique and not “just another prophet,” that God is somehow active in the world, that Christianity must offer a hope and “good news” if it is to merit our attention, that discipleship should be serious and life-transforming — all these are themes that I hear heatedly debated, adapted, and adopted.

True, emerging Christians often don’t lead with these assertions. As Phyllis Tickle notes, their movement tends to be “belong … behave … believe” rather than “believe … behave … belong.” Given their stress on the Jesus of the gospels, their ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) focuses first on creating communities of acceptance and honesty, communities where questioning is okay. But neither community nor politics nor social action is the final goal. Across the movement I see a strong desire to rediscover a deep, vibrant form of incarnational Christian life and faith–one based not on an economy of exclusion but of embrace.

For this reason, it’s natural for emerging Christians to invite churches back to the “big tent” vision. The invitation extends to liberals who want to be able to say what is distinctively Christian about their progressive stance, and to evangelicals who want to really engage contemporary culture and thought from a biblical perspective. Some will decline this call to Christian unity for the sake of the purity of their non-negotiable doctrinal boundaries. But others, growing tired of the increasingly hostile disputes, are finding ways to proclaim a common vision.

Why It’s Urgent to Look for Common Ground

Many of the old religious institutions are withering away. People are voting with their feet on Saturday and Sunday mornings: “if that’s what religion is, I’m not interested.” Much changes in turbulent times–especially the face of religion. If “Christian” is just a label for warring factions on the Left and Right, each ridiculing the other and declaring themselves the only true heirs of Christ, then yes, more and more will become post-Christian.

But why associate Christianity only with this battle? Why not join the increasing number of those who want to leave it behind? The way we navigate our spiritual identities is changing; a revolution is afoot. Why limit spiritual practices only to the forms of the past? As the debates and distinctions of bygone eras cease to matter so much, new spaces of acceptance are opening up, bringing with them new forms of Christian practice. Should we not welcome them, rather than seeking to squelch them?

This piece was also published on the Huffington post at:


Ian Carmichael

September 2, 2010at 8:27 pm

Great! Thanks, Philip. The search is to find a meaningful distinctive – too often ‘liberal Christianity’ has been just another pressure group for social change. Too often evangelical Christianity has been either a ‘doctrine chopper’s shop’ or a privatised personal-only salvation group. But really the here-and-now world mattters, as do individuals, under the gaze and grace of God. All three, somehow must be entwined, or else nothing much.

John Grant

September 3, 2010at 3:50 pm

Thank you Dr. Clayton. As one who has felt the sting of criticism from those who feel they must defend the truth, my heart aches for the hope and promise a Big Tent can bring. I serve a church where the scars of that battle have proven slow to heal. But there are many who long for something more, something deeper. That’s what I see this whole movement offering. Again, thanks.

Ginny Bain Allen

September 16, 2010at 2:49 pm

I ask you what is wrong with singing the old hymns? What was so problematic with my grandparents’ church? A new kind of Christianity is needed? Really?

The postmodern church speaks of the religious left and the religious right. To me, it’s more like the “German Christians” during Hitler’s reign compared to the Confessing Church led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The postmodern church is more interested in group hugs, warm fuzzies, providing a shoulder to cry on when folks get “real” with each other, telling folks they’re fine the way they are instead of preaching the truth, instead of showing lost, hurting people that Jesus can bring them victory in their pain, as well as save them from their sinful selves! Words like diversity, pluralism and tolerance have anesthetized us to the reality of good and evil. We’re called to love all men in the name of Jesus, not ignore their debauchery in the name of diversity. Sin is a big deal to God. So much so that He allowed Jesus to die on a cruel Roman cross to rescue us from its grip. Glossing over evil – whether our own behaviour or something the entertainment media has produced – is to say in essence, “What you did is really of little value to me, God. My view of sin is different from yours, and frankly I’m not that disturbed by it. Tolerance is the cultivation of an attitude of indifference to things we see happening around us. It is a numbing of one’s conscience, a dumbing down of one‘s convictions. It is political, religious and cultural correctness. It is being afraid to step on toes. It is not wanting to make waves. It is keeping one’s head in the sand like an ostrich. In the name of peace, we tolerate evil. In the name of tolerance, we accept sin and call it free enterprise or freedom of sexual persuasion. We dare not stand up for what we believe for fear of being labeled intolerant. “Tolerance” and “love” are two very different things. Tolerance sees your sin and embraces it. Grace sees your sin and hands you over to Christ’s healing embrace. Attempting to portray half a Saviour, bringing only His love to the lost world, without at the same time illuminating His love with His truth, is the scheme afoot in the postmodern church! Of course, half a Saviour is no Saviour at all. Half the Gospel is no Gospel. It’s playing cafeteria Christianity, picking and choosing what parts of the Bible to believe and what parts to discard, like President Thomas Jefferson did. That is NOT Christianity! Liberal Christian is an oxymoron. There can be no such person!

Speaking of tent revivals, the Catholic church I grew up in in Charlottesville, VA, held an honest-to-goodness tent revival meeting this August. Lives were changed and rearranged for Jesus Christ as folks from many denominations and differing worldviews gathered together to praise, worship and listen to the Gospel preached in its entirety. They were not there for a riveting performance, or to be told they are fine the way they are. They already knew they were NOT fine the way they are. They already knew they were living in rebellion towards God. In Matthew 9:11-13, Jesus’ disciples were asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In essence, Jesus was saying that everybody is living in sin if they have not surrendered all to Him, and everyone is in need of His healing and His salvation if they want to have eternal life. He didn’t tell the tax collectors and sinners that they were fine the way they were. He didn’t join them in their sin in an attempt to relate. He wasn’t down with how they were living. He boldly declared that they needed His healing and His salvation! The people in attendance at The Church of the Incarnation, for the tent revival, were there to hear the Truth proclaimed! Herein lies the crux of the problem with the postmodern church, what they have dubbed the “Big Tent” – we cannot simply embrace all religions as if they are equal. THEY ARE NOT! All paths do NOT lead to heaven! There is one narrow way, folks, and we are told by Jesus, “few there be that find it.” How sobering! The heresy the postmodern church teaches sends people to hell! That is NOT love! That is NOT the Good News of Jesus Christ! Here is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said to such heresy, “The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty … before which all creatures must kneel. whoever seeks something other than this must keep away, he cannot join us in the house of God … The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone. That is, we are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live. Unlike cheap grace, which means going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn’t really matter much how you live, anyone who truly understands how God’s costly graace comes to us will have a changed life. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Unlike the unbridled, unholy freedom Donald Miller preaches, the worldly preaching focused on sex and pleasure, the party atmosphere, and the empty 7/11 songs sung in the postmodern church, how about instead having a courageous man, who actually knows and craves the wisdom and knowledge in God’s Word, to bring an eloquent message of the Truth of the Good News, in all it’s grandeur, power and majesty, to the masses?

The old hymns and Scripture songs are fraught with powerful meaning. Singing them instills peace, joy, comfort, strength and hope, as well as ensuring God’s Holy word will root deeply in one’s heart. My grandparents were blessed to hear fire and brimstone preaching. They had the fear of God, unlike those in the postmodern church of today – the church that is supposedly so enlightened….so hip.

JESUS CHRIST IS THE SAME YESTERDAY, TODAY AND FOREVER. All we need do is get back to His way, authentic Christianity, the Gospel of the Good News!

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