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The Church in Emerging Culture

by Jay Gary, May 8, 2004

church_emerging_book_lLast fall I had the pleasure of meeting Brian McLaren, a leader in Emergent, an initiative by 20 and 30-something Christians to express their faith in a relevant way to both the present and the future.

Over a breakfast burrito at Pepperjacks, Brian sketched out a message/method matrix that had guided Leonard Sweet in inviting five contributors for a soon to be released book, The Church in Emerging Culture: Five perspectives, Zondervan, 2003.

Last week I got my hands on a copy. This is a real storehouse for leaders who want to illuminate the future of the church. Akin to a surveyor, Sweet opens the book by differentiating four cultural spaces that churches and leaders are seeding faith in. These spaces are: 1) the Garden, 2) the Park, 3) the Glen and 4) the Meadow.

He reminds us that the word culture once referred to goo that grew in a petri disk, and comes from the word agriculture. He writes, “The language of “clearing” is another way of talking about “kingdom”–or the domain of God. Each clearing engenders a different faith ecosystem.

The Garden: Sweet claims the Garden, the first space, “only uses only tried-and-true seeds that have been inherited.” These laborers do everything they can to retain the purity of the seed stock and pass on the liturgical rituals of planting as they have inherited them. He calls this space the “preserving message/preserving method” clearing. Today Orthodox or Reformed Christians inhabit this space, and Sweet drew on the insights of contributors Frederica Mathewes-Green and Michael Horton to share how one cultivates faith in a Garden.

The Park: Sweet’s second space is the Park. They too use only seed stock from their ancestors, but exploit new methods of planting the ground and fertilizing the soil. This is the “preserving message/evolving clearing” space. Unlike private Gardens, Parks often have paved “boulevards” for public walkways. Most low-church Protestants cultivate faith in Park-like spaces, including Baptist, Methodists, Nazarenes, etc. Mosaic church leader, Erwin Raphael McManus contributed an essay in this space.

The Glen: The third space is the Glen, a craggy nook between hillsides. These cultivators adapt their seed stock to grow on hill places, but use traditional methods of planting in furrows and with plows. Sweet considers this the “evolving message/preserving methods.” In contrast to the protected Garden, where the dangers of society are far off, the Glenners point out “how faith lives dangeously on the brink.” Sweet places Catholicism here and invited Andy Crouch to write from this space.

The Meadow: The fourth space is the Meadow, and those who plant faith here augment the seed stock and use new techniques of “cross-fertilization, hybridization, aquaculture, and the like.” Sweet calls this the “evolving message/evolving methods” clearing. These preserves found in the wild are lowlying grasslands where wildflowers grow in their splender. This space reflects the postmodern church, where experimentation and diversity are valued. Brian McLaren wrote from this space.

Then right from the start, Sweet offers jewels for Christian futurists (p. 21):

In addition, each clearing has its proponents of the three ways of treating social change:

1. Reactive–wait until change occurs before you deal with it; assume that while change is always occuring, the future will still be like the past, utilize crisis management.

2. Responsive–while change is occuring, get involved to do what you can; anticipate what is probable, and be proactive once you see the direction change is going.

3. Redemptive–get ahead of change and try and steer it; no one can escape the reactive and responsive, but learn to read the handwriting on the wall, utilizing futuring and futures research as prophetic professions.

This is a great rationale for why faith needs to cultivate foresight, so it might be redemptive, incarnational and transform societies.

Rather than dry essays, The Church in Emerging Culture comes across as a lively discussion, where contributors freely and frequently annotate each others essays. I recommend it for anyone who wants to sharpen their cultivation skills. It provides the freshest take on “Christ and Culture” I’ve seen in a long time.

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