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A Visit to an Emerging Church: The Gospel According to Lost

Saint Sayid gazed across the congregation, cool yet conflicted. The "humanitarian torturer" his tagline read.  Next to him, Saint Jack and next to him Saint Kateall rendered on large canvases with bright colors. Like portraits of the apostles in a medieval church, the cast of Lost, complete with gold halos, surrounded the congregation, reminding them…

Saint Sayid gazed across the congregation, cool yet conflicted. The "humanitarian torturer" his tagline read.  Next to him, Saint Jack and next to him Saint Kateall rendered on large canvases with bright colors. Like portraits of the apostles in a medieval church, the cast of Lost, complete with gold halos, surrounded the congregation, reminding them…

"Together We Survive. Alone we die."

After his brother Robbie led the people in thoughtful, sometimes haunting praise and prayers, pastor Chris Seay settled onto his stool in Ecclesia, the emerging church they founded in the artsy Montrose district of Houston, and introduced a video story of his Hawaiian adventure the previous week.

Chris, one of the most influential and best known leaders of the emerging church in America, authored The Gospel According to Lost (and The Gospel According to Tony Soprano). He had attended the star-studded premier of the final season of one of the most popular TV series ever. His video showed the limos unloading Lost stars "John Locke" and "Ben" and, cover your ears, Sawyer, the bad boy heart throb. We saw Chris hand Evangeline Lily ("Kate") a copy of his book that featured the very paintings that hung in the room. Nothing was said about the potential for ministry, but everyone was thinking about it.

Chris introduced another video story about a man in the congregation who had flown to Haiti to bring home his son. He and his wife had been in the process of adoption when the earthquake hit. He had spent nine days on the floor of the American Embassy waiting for the proper signatures before his son was released, or supposed to be released. At the last minute his son was pulled from the the plane. Another day of nail-biting delay and finally, in the past week, a happy Renato took off for his new life. Arriving at the Houston airport he flashed smiles at his new Mom, siblings. A silver haired senior gently hugged him. "Hi! I’m your new grandma!" The story drew enthusiastic applause from people who had prayed for this day for months and for the last nine days intensely.

A third video featured footage of an art exhibition the church had hosted that week for a young man who, if I understood correctly, is both talented and homeless. Other homeless people mixed it up with Ecclesia community members in the coffee bar and book store adjacent to the worship space. The bulletin encouraging participation in a community vegetable garden and outreach events including a "bring your own tea cup" event for the women and "Pump Up the Jams," a full-blown prom with food and dancing to raise funds for clean water pumps. "Dress attire is formal through the ages." 

In contrast to the mellow, minor keyed, contemplative music, Chris, decked in a gold and black Saints jersey, began his talk celebrating Superbowl Sunday with no pretense of partiality, sniping at Indianapolis…"What food has Indianapolis offered the world? Struedel? On the other hand New Orleans…" With high energy (in spite of a migraine) and effortless cool he connected with the audience of about 85% under 35’s, several of whom were standing against the walls because, in spite of four services, Ecclesia is bursting at the seams. While many traditional Bible teaching churches we’ve talked with in our transition struggle to attract the under 35’s Ecclesia draws them in spades. In part, no doubt because their website is written in 8-pt font and no one over 40 can read it.

I tried to recall the main point of Chris’ message on the way home, but couldn’t. Neither could Jack. (If I’d known I was going to blog about it I’d have taken better notes.) It was not a linear, logical, big idea sermon. More like a running commentary on the letter to the church at Laodicea in Rev 3 and Jesus re-naming Simon to Peter in Matt 16. But Jack and I both recalled many insightful commentsI stand at the door and knock was written to the church, not a single individual. Jesus wants to enter in and fellowship with his church in community. In a moment of great faith Jesus commends Peter’s profession that he is Messiah. In the next paragraph Peter resists Jesus prophecy of the cross. Christ admonishes him to "get behind me Satan." One minute Simon is a Rock, the next he is Satan. How like our own propensity to soar and then sin. Returning to the Rev passage, "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked," Chris invoked this description as a banner for Ecclesia…WE are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. And we need a Savior and a redemptive community.

As a Lostie myself, I enjoyed the cultural connect to a show that raises so many questions of faith, determinism and choice. My 29-year old son would have enjoyed it too I suspect. The young couple beside me drove 45 minutes both ways every week to worship at Ecclesia. Their faces radiated excitement about this community. I did not leave with a big idea from the sermon, but I left with a clear understanding and demonstration of their four core values spelled out on the front of their bulletin: Holistic-no sacred/secular divide; Gospel impacts every area of life. Missional: the church exists for the world, not herself. Christian-embrace the teachings and divinity of Jesus and the Bible as God’s primary instrument of communication. Community-a reflection of the Trinity; a commitment to live in unity. To share their faults and failure. To get into their stuff.

It is on this point, this fiercely redemptive desire to bare our souls in order to seek restoration, that some question the balance of the emergent church. For example, in the Rev 3 passage Christ’s pronouncement that "you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked" is not offered as a banner of the broken in search of grace. It is the condemnation of Jesus on a luke-warm, self-satisfied church in an affluent culture, exactly the thing that Ecclesia does *not* want to be.

John Eldredge gently questions the larger emerging/emergent church’s celebration of the gospel’s minor theme in Kelly Kullberg’s and my Faith and Culture Devotional. Quoting Francis Schaeffer John writes that "there are two themes to the gospel: a major theme of hope, love, and life triumphant, and a minor theme of suffering, sorrow, and loss…Yes, the gospel has a minor theme. And I want to be very honest about what it’s like to live in this world. The Christianity that only talks about hope, joy, and overcoming would be hollow, syrupy, shallow. In the young and emerging church there is an honesty there that I respect, and that is very good.

But the world is well acquainted with darkness and confusion and, for the most part, they believe that is all there really is. If all we offer people is just realness and we all just sit in the minor theme, then what are we offering? Where’s the breakthrough? Where’s the resurrection of Christ, the ascension of Christ? And where is the rest of Scripture that talks about, he does heal the brokenhearted? That we reign in life with Christ? That in all these things we are more than conquerors? I want to talk about that major theme as well, as Schaeffer warned so many years ago, and make it the major theme. We must be honest about the minor theme, but we must keep it the minor theme."

At Ecclesia, we experienced a celebration of overcoming in the videos and a clear statement of the power of God over sin in Chris’s message. And yet in most of the music (and I really like Robbie Seay’s music) and in strong statements in the message (as quoted above) the minor theme prevails. This brings up the question often asked of the larger emerging/emergent church: In trying to be culturally relevant has the pendulum swung too far the other way? Is there a biblical balance more tilted toward redemption, the major theme and confidence in the "faith delivered once for all"? Or, echoing today’s cultural sensibilities, is the emerging/emergent church exalting doubt, uncertainty and the minor theme in a way that skews the gospel and our daily experience?

I’d enjoy a discussion with Chris sometime on the tension between the postmodern penchant for cognitive humility and the Biblical expectation of a confident faith. Between the minor key, contemplative bent of worship and the wide bandwidth of emotional expression of the psalms, including the really upbeat celebrative psalms. Perhaps the postmodern/emerging/emergent church is throwing the major-theme-of-the-gospel baby out with the shallow-triumphalist-all-major-theme-all-the-time bathwater of modernity. Or perhaps a good dialogue would show that contextualization doesn’t substantively altar the message

All in all I left Ecclesia thinking that Jesus was exalted over a prayerful, worshipful, creative people. The video stories and message especially wove the vision and values of community and mission into a seamless fabric of immediate experience. Wow, what a redemptive week in the life of a church! And I will remember that experience even though I don’t remember the point or flow of the message. For someone who is used to a less narrative more clearly organized teaching of the Word on Sundays it was a shift to ponder.

We’ve interviewed Chris on our radio show and I appreciate his leadership in that first "relevant lane" of the emerging church. He is out there, writing, speaking, thinking, experimenting, going where no church guy has gone before. His success in planting a thriving church in Houston’s most liberal, gay proud, artsy, professional community should challenge those of us in traditional churches that are struggling to attract the younger generation. What can we learn from Ecclesia? 

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Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.

5 Comments

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    Megan S

    I like what you said about
    I like what you said about swinging the pendulum too far towards the “minor theme.” I totally do that. I feel so thirsty for authenticity and honest community at times that I could easily fall hook line in sinker for that type of thought. The question is how do we *blend* both themes? I appreciate your words! Thanks for drawing my attention to this point. I’ve really enjoyed this emerging church series you are doing. Keep the thoughts coming!

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      Lael Arrington

      authenticity and the minor theme
      Isn’t it often the case, Megan, that our strengths overextended become our weaknesses?

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    robbie seay

    from robbie seay
    Mrs. Arrington,
    First off, you didn’t come say hello when you visited and for that I expect an apology:)
    Tomball gave me a wife of now 11 years, so any friends visiting from the NW side of town are welcome anytime!

    I appreciate your post. I would suggest getting an audio copy of the sermon that day because I think you missed a great deal.

    A few things I would point out quickly:

    I remember that sermon well. The main “point” was centered on the TRUTH of the Resurrection and how that must be present in all of life.

    Rev 3 – Clearly, there is a disagreement on this passage as you spelled out. We may have to agree to disagree on the interpretation there but again, i think by reviewing what was said in the audio, you might be more open to discussion on this.

    music -I checked the songs that were sung in that service. Here are a few sample lyrics from that day:

    song 1 – Oh, my soul
    Overflows
    Oh, what love, oh, what love
    Oh, my soul
    Fills hope
    Perfect love that never lets go

    song 3 – Heavenly Father
    You always amaze me
    Let your kingdom come
    In my world and in my life
    You give me the food I need
    To live through the day
    And forgive me as I forgive
    The people that wronged me
    Lead me far from temptation
    Deliver me from the evil one

    song 5 – your shepherd

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      Lael Arrington

      Response to Chris and Robbie Seay

      Thank you so much, Chris and Robbie, for responding to my post. I did look for you after the Ecclesia service but didn’t find you. Thank you, Chris, for offering a specific example of what I so appreciated about your sermon. And thank you, Robbie, for the invitation for coffee and a return visit. I

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    Chris Seay

    minor themes?
    Lael,
    I always enjoy seeing you and Jack, so I am sad we did not get to visit when you came to Ecclesia. Several people have sent me your blog, so after getting it again in a facebook message and being very perplexed, I thought I would add a few things. Perplexed, in that it seems that people often carry so many ideas about our church (which would not claim an emerging label) that they see it through those lenses they perceive rather the reality of our church. I was especially surprised by what you describe as our focus on the minor themes and wondered, where is the resurrection?
    So confused was I that I did the unthinkable and downloaded my own podcast (hate to listen to my own voice) and transcribed just one of the references to the resurrection on the Sunday that you were with us – here it is.

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