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

Lael Arrington's picture

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 Kate—all 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 comments—I 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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