Form and Function

Ever visit a “postmodern/emerging” community of faith and the experience was anything but postmodern? If anything, one could call it a “hyper-evangelical experience” – you know, a standard “saddlecreek” church with louder music and cool haircuts. I have been there, done that and even have the t-shirts. Over time I have received many emails from people who have asked me what I think a “postmodern/emerging” community of faith would look like? To be honest, I am not sure – that would totally depend on the community, the people, the vision, the heart, the art, the joy and the grace of the people connected to the community – but i think there are certain “cores” that a postmodern/emerging community of faith has that are important (in my opinion) to the nature of the community. When I share them (those that I see as “core”), some get very defensive in replies. It seems that they saw their community of faith as “postmodern/emerging” but they did not see any of the cores in their communities.

Still, many seemed to want to know what I thought the “form” of a postmodern/emerging community of faith would be. It seems that they needed answers – but I like it better when things are designed for people to develop questions, not for me to give my answers. My understanding of a “postmodern/emerging” community of faith is, as all things, based on two very important ideas “form and function.”

The Assumptions of Form:
Form is the visible, the seen structure and the tangible. It is what we can touch, and touch can be defined as something felt and seen. Its texture can be described and its “feel” can be expressed. If your form is identical to the general form of all others you are saying you are no different, or at least show no creativity, from any other. When the church made the move from the traditional to the contemporary, form was changed. Creativity took hold and a new texture was designed to meet the changing tastes of the people. So, it goes, a move from the contemporary to the postmodern/emerging demands a form change, a new texture based on new views, patterns and structure.

In the postmodern/emerging community of faith I believe form takes on two different, and very important, “forms.” The first of these forms is general structure and the second is governance. Let me start with the idea of general structure.

I see general structure of a community of faith falling at two ends of a spectrum. On one end the “stand-alone” and on the other end, what I call, the “corded.”

The form of structure
The stand-alone, is a community of faith that may, or may, not be connected to a denomination; they may, or may, not be receiving funds from other church. For all intents and purposes they are on their own. Their staffs are not being paid by another church, nor are they part of another churches staff, and they are not under the control of another ministry. The key to a stand-alone is that it can express the theology it finds central to scripture and the way they see the scripture in the life of the people they desire to minister too.

On the other end of the spectrum is the corded community of faith. These communities of faith are ones that are directly tied to a “mother church.” The pastor is one of the pastors of the larger church and is usually under the direct control of the senior pastor, and the board of the “mother church.” They count on the mother church for money, man power, meeting place and equipment – they are connected via an “umbilical-cord” to the mother church – hence the idea that they are a “corded” church. Now, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with this structure, to truly be birthed a process of maturation needs to take place where the mother feeds the child for a period of time – but then a birth needs to take place, for it to truly be able to express itself as a postmodern/emerging community of faith

While these may be the two extremes of a spectrum I do recognize that many churches fall somewhere between the two ends. Generally speaking, corded communities of faith (corded at any level) can never be “fully postmodern/emerging” because of their relationship with, and to, the modern mother church. Over the past few years I have spoken with many “associate pastors” who serve in a hyper-modern corded communities of faith and they have expressed their concern about not being able to fully express what they believe needs to be expressed. With few exceptions, these corded communities of faith seem to be designed to keep the “college age” members of the church happy and to let their parents think they are doing something cool for their kids. In short, the modern mother church sees a “postmodern/emerging outreach” as simply another program.

Another aspect of the “structure” form of a postmodern/emerging community of faith is that it tends to be far less program driven and more people driven. While project, short-term ideas abound, “major programs” are not embedded in the postmodern/emerging community of faith. Postmodern/emerging communities of faith are not program driven. In fact, they are not programming anything. Programs are a modern design and work well with modern people, but no so with a postmodern community of faith. If a group of people gathers for “home churches” and they have children and youth – a youth group is naturally formed. If, a youth gathering is needed for the larger community of faith it can grow out of that gathering, it is naturally organic and develops from the heart of God’s call.

On a personal level, I tend to the stand-alone community of faith; because a true postmodern/emerging structure needs to be creative and less central then in modern church. Postmodern/emerging structure allows for people to get involved and not sit on the sidelines. If the structure is not designed to allow for creative expressions, then a postmodern/emerging structure is not in place. Which brings me to the second point of form, governance.

The form of governance
Governance, in general terms, is control. In a modern church this control is rigid, central, authoritative, business minded, controlling and very unidirectional. While this structure may vary in its intensity all these parts are present in a modern community of faith. For example, some modern churches may be less rigid, but that does not change the fact that they are a modern church. While governance in a postmodern/emerging community of faith is divested, empowering, encouraging and interactive.

Governance of many churches in USAmerica is not based on scripture – sorry, but that is just fact. I know, as you are reading this you are saying, “not my church.” But it’s true. All churches in USAmerica have governance based in either state laws or IRS code; all churches – plan simple fact. Generally speaking, this is not “wrong” its just fact. Look around; every modern church that claims to have a “biblical model of leadership” is actually governed based on the cultural laws of the individual state they are in. In fact, most modern churches I know of have simply taken the “constitution” (which is not a biblical concept) of other “larger, successful” churches and changed the name to fit its needs. What I find interesting is the fact that while state law tells you want you need in the way of “corporate offices” most do not define the way those offices are defined in a church. The modern church has taken the historical corporate and military view of leadership and defined the roles of leaders in the modern church on those models.

In a postmodern/emerging community of faith “leadership” is truly discipleship, a teaching relationship between people where Christ is the center. People in a postmodern/emerging community of faith that govern are seen in terms of a mentor, one who helps people along a path. A postmodern “leader” is less leader and more artist, less CEO and more friend – this idea of a system that is freeing and trusting is hard for a controlling modern mind to grasp. They, modern Christians, believe for a true church to form, someone must be in control – and a postmodern/emerging Christian sees God as in control and trusts that the person is following God’s call on their lives. Trust is an essential part of a postmodern/emerging structure of governance. True postmodern/emerging “leadership” is seen as a team, where the roles interact and change as needed; again, trust is central to a postmodern structure. Trust is an “unseen” quality – if you trust me, I will know even though I cannot touch it, and that leads us to the second part of this article “function.”

The Assumptions of Function:
Function is the unseen, the unspoken, that which is felt and not physically touched. While form may show a certain quality, function can be seen as an expression of that quality. So, the question begs to be asked – what is a “postmodern/emerging community of faith function?” What are the “unseen” qualities of a postmodern/emerging community of faith?

I find that function falls into two qualities, theology and attitude. Let me start by saying that I do not believe a postmodern/emerging community of faith is defined by music or age. While these may be part of a postmodern/emerging community of faith, they do not define the community.

While it may seem silly to say that a postmodern/emerging community of faith needs to have a postmodern theology function, I am surprised how many just don’t. Rewrapped evangelism, or fundamentalism, will not work. Before I go further I need to explain that there is a difference between a postmodern theology and a modern theology. But “liberal” is not necessarily a postmodern theology. Postmodern theology is not conservative nor is it liberal. Both those concepts are modern and linear and make one select “a side.” Modern theology is centered on evangelistic systematic theology, and in the great formation of the cosmos a postmodern theology can never be systemized – there can be no such nothing as a “postmodern systematic theology” (even though some have tried, and are still trying). While a debate can be made for what is and what is not part of a postmodern theology, and we debate that regularly on the egroup “postmodern theology,” I think certain parts of a postmodern theology are, a willingness to be open and allow for an honest exchange of ideas, a willingness to examine all aspects of theology and see what has a direct tie to scripture, a desire to not be “hard lined” in a particular theological tradition, a desire not to be tied to tradition at all, a knowledge that skeptics are welcomed and healthy and a desires to go beyond what others say we must. If all that is happening in a church is a rewrapping of evangelical theology, then no matter the form the function defines it as a contemporary modern church.

The next function is that of attitude or “environment.” This is the ultimate of the unseen, yet it is so very important. When I walk into a modern contemporary church I “just know” because of the way I am treated. Usually, the only people to even acknowledge I am alive are those handing out bulletins. People walk by without even the simplest of exchanges, and if I make the first move I am ignored. Yet, when I enter a postmodern/emerging community of faith I am made to feel welcomed, because people want to know me – they want to make a new friend and experience a new way of seeing things. Last year (before i went into hiding – but I am out now) I had the opportunity to speak at the Upstairs Leadership Conference in Phoenix Arizona. While I was there I was invited to attend The Bridge, a postmodern/emerging community of faith. When I walked in, I knew it – it was not the music (though that was great) but it was the people, people came to me and talked with me (and they had no idea who I was). People actually sat by me and opened conversation with me – something that would never happen in a modern contemporary church. I knew that I was in a place where people wanted to know me, and no for any other reason but for myself.

This is very important to a postmodern/emerging community of faith’s function – why do you want to know the people who attend the community of faith? Is it to share Christ? Is it to make sure I return? What is the reason? If you want to know me because you want me to join your church, then you want to know me for false reasons – and not for me. Your motives are not pure. If the reason you want to know me is because you want to share with me Jesus Christ, then you do not want to get to know me – you have an altered-motive, no matter how altruistic that move is, it is not because you want to know me.

I usually try to end what i am writing by trying to tie all together, but not today. What I desire to do is close with a question; one that I believe is very important and needs to have an honest answer. If the form and function of a community of faith shows no real difference from a modern contemporary church how can that community of faith claim to be postmodern/emerging?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are some good thoughts here. I have wrestled with these issues myself and generally agree with your opinions. Before risking an answer to your concluding question. I would like to note several key observations that inform my answer.

1. There is no such thing as a single emerging culture. We have many streams of culture that interact and express their emergence differently.
2. Form and Function can and will vary with the values of the emergent community.
3. The Form and Function of one emergent community may even contradict those of other emergent communities.
4. The Postmodern context of any city has many sub-streams and will differ from ones in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, or any other location even though there may be some overlap.
5. I have walked into a contemporary modern church in Seattle and encountered a community marked by a definite postmodern function in theology and attitude as you have defined it. A modernist form with a postmodern function. Quite the paradox. But one that fit the context of the greater community they reside in.
6. I think the hinge to my answer resides in the context of the particular emergent community and cultural stream they reside in.

My answer: they Can and Cannot. I would surmise that it depends on the stream of emerging culture they are in and how that coheres with their more modernist form and function. The answer may be an interplay between Yes and No.

Darren Davenport