This was recently picked up by www.the-next-wave.org.
When I first entered the ministry, my church staff traveled to Willow Creek’s “Prevailing Church” conference. Fresh out of a biblical studies degree, I had only recently begun to interact with much of the church-growth literature. I had marked up my copy of Purpose-Driven Church and kept John Maxwell tapes in my car at all times. So you can imagine the wonder and awe I experienced when I first gazed upon the glory of Willow Creek’s Disneyland-size parking lot.
During this brief phase of my life, I soaked in the 'Willow-Back' philosophy like a sponge. Coming from a slightly traditional background, I became fascinated with the seeker-sensitive approach. I felt intoxicated by words like “strategy” and “excellence”, and I pretty much read whatever books “those guys” told me to read.
But the honeymoon quickly ended. Not only did I soak in church-growth literature, but I occasionally ran across harsh criticisms of the seeker-sensitive movement. Some people threw around names like “sell-outs” and used descriptions like “watering down the Gospel.” These disparagements did not compute with my experience at Willow Creek (where their passion for Jesus overruled their passion for excellence), but the seed of doubt was planted nonetheless. All that I had eaten at the table of leadership soon began to churn within my soul.
I then entered my “dark night of the soul.” My wife and I call this my “postmodern crisis.” While I wrestled with one “why” question after another, she prayed that I would still be a Christian on the other side. I felt like my superiors and peers had betrayed me—which they had not—and I found myself struggling with increasing resentment and a judgmental attitude.
It took me a while to find equilibrium. But when I did, I discovered something strange. The negative emotions that I had experienced did not stem from the so-called sins of the church-growth movement. The real issues revolved around my personal incompatibility with the philosophies of another generation. In other words, the Saddleback Sam I had come to embrace just could not satisfy my internal Postmodern Pete. Therefore, while I learned to plunder the business world for truth and virtually lived and died by numbers, I had neglected my authentic desire for community, mystery, and social justice. Of course, these are like the trifecta-force radiating from all emergent literature.
This leads me to discussing more recent voices in American Christianity. It seems that a philosophical shift is taking/has taken place regarding cultural relevance: the Lee Strobels are being replaced by Donald Miller’s and the Rick Warren’s are being replaced by Brian McLarens. I know that I should write about a thousand disclaimers here, but please allow me to bypass that necessity of drawing distinctions in order to get to the point.
My point is that despite the stylistic differences between these two camps (Sam vs. Pete), most of their leaders are striving for the same thing—cultural relevance. Whether the poster-child is Bill Hybels or Doug Pagitt, I tend to see their efforts flowing out of their similar desires to connect the message of Jesus to non-Christians—Willow’s auditorium is just a super-sized version of Solomon’s Porch.
Boomer churches strove to understand their audience in the same way many emerging churches do—a sermon about “Seven Steps to a Healthy Marriage” was just as contextual as “Deconstructing Little Miss Sunshine”. In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell complains about the abominable phrase “Christian Marketing”. I understand this complaint to be rooted in a distrust of institutions and power-manipulating the masses, but let’s be honest. Driscoll and Bell (the Mars Hill Bros.) are not popular because they portray a cultureless Gospel, they are popular for one primary reason—they’re wicked cool. In other words, they are marketable because they are connecting with the new postmodern niche. They’ve found a way to make sense to people. Purpose-driven nooma.