This week, we hosted an event at Southwestern College that we call “Builders in Ministry Week.” It’s a three day event for current students, alumni and friends of Southwestern (whose mascot is the Moundbuilder) that allows for connection and continuing education. This year we had Tony Jones as our guest speaker. It seems that he’s fallen out of favor (or jumped the shark) with most evangelicals, probably for things like this. I will admit that I haven’t read The New Christians yet, but have read lots of other (shorter) representative writings of TJ and other Emergents and find much about which to agree! However, I have my share of things about which I do not agree, and they may be “deal breakers” to make me a true Emergent (what is that, by the way?). Here is my take on his time here at SC:
First, I found him to be really easy to just sit down and chat with (which happened for me at dinner the first night, before he spoke a word). I was really impressed with him, especially since he had back surgery a week ago yesterday. He was not even a week out and he put himself through the stress of travel. I commend his fortitude and willingness to keep a commitment!
After having him here for a couple of days, I think I can say this…I think he sort of sees his role as a gadfly—he’s trying to stir the pot and raise important questions—or perhaps he sees his role as prophetic. I’m not sure that I would characterize him as prophetic. Maybe, but for me time will tell and the jury is still out. That being said, he raised quite a few questions in our context, some of which were helpful, others, notsomuch (I’ll identify those below and you can guess which are in what category!).
Among the 10 “dispatches” about which he spoke (The New Christians is organized as a series of 20 “dispatches” from the Emergent frontier), several are particularly helpful correctives (by my standards) to the Church. 1.) Theology really matters. I appreciate the thoughtfulness by which they attempt to view all aspects of their ministry by considering the theology behind it. An example that Jones gave had to do with the fact that they don’t use microphones in their church (he’s currently a part of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis). They are demonstrating that no one voice is louder than another and a microphone symbolizes the lording of power of one person over another. Nice sentiment, but I must be too pragmatic. This is where I want to say that taking turns speaking (which they do, often) sends the same message while allowing the speaker to be heard, which he admitted only happened during the half of the time that the speaker was facing the hearer’s direction. That brings me to my second helpful corrective, 2.) Emergents will “move the pews,” taking them out of church and set up couches, for instance. He identified that Emergents will push the envelope a bit and remind us that “church” happened long before there were pews with plaques on them and some of our sacred cows can actually be sacrificed. For Solomon's Porch, they do church “in the round” and sit where they can see one another (but it does lead to that pesky problem of only being able to hear the “speaker” half the time, since they use no microphone). The corrective is helpful, but at what point must a line be drawn for pragmatism?
Several dispatches were a bit hard for me to swallow. Most notably is that Jones is pretty ready for denominations to just “go away.” He didn’t outright say that, but he indicated that through many of his points (low view of ordination—about as low as it could get, frustration with institutional churches, to name a few). Maybe this isn’t shocking to anyone else, but it was a little surprising to me about how low his view is of institutional churches (even their organization--committees, books of discipline, etc.--seemed reprehensible to him, in my view). At one point, one experienced UM pastor basically asked him if he saw anything redemptive about the UMC, and he struggled for a minute and said, “They’re renting us a great building for Solomon’s Porch…and they’ve offered to sell it to us for over a million dollars, or for free if we want to become Methodist. If they really want to be the Church, they would just let us use the building for free to do ministry.” He went on to say that he did think it was great that people who might not get to serve a good church in another denomination (ie, women and minorities), got that chance in the UMC. Score one for inclusivity! I do think that we could shore up denominations a good bit (I could think of a few things in Methodism that I would like to see cleaned up), but I’m most definitely not ready to dissolve all structures. There is a baby in that bathwater!
I have many more things that I could blog about—his understanding of power, authority, and a few things that I think he just got plain wrong—but that will have to wait for another day. Instead, I’ll just give my parting impressions…one negative and one positive.
First the negative: Mr. Jones didn’t seem quite as willing to listen as he was to talk. Maybe he’s done listening. Maybe the pain from the recent back surgery got to him. Maybe I got it wrong. However, it was difficult for anyone to do more than ask a 20 second question (with nary a follow up statement or question from the questioner) during our hour and a half long Q&A time the morning after his lecture. The conversationalist from dinner the night before had re-emerged a bit more decided than I thought Emergents were supposed to be. Hm.
And the positive: I appreciated his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit (though implicit) in the community of Christians. (His dissertation, he told us, is actually on the pneumatology of the Emergent Movement.) The dynamism of the Emergent Movement is refreshing. I’m sure that the Holy Spirit isn’t done with Tony Jones (or even me!) quite yet. Maybe we all have something left to learn.
PS For another view on Tony's time with us at Southwestern, see Steve Rankin's blog: steverankin.wordpress.com