The third annual conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future concluded today. Here is the text of the summary I gave those attending the meeting at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. If you were unable to attend, perhaps this quick round-up of the presentations and discussion will be helpful.
I recently attended a conference where Muslim and Christian leaders spoke together about their faith. The Muslims were pointed and crystal clear. Unfortunately, the Christians, by and large, failed to present the core of our faith with a comparable crispness. National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson was one glorious exception. Unfortunately, a very prominent Christian preacher left the most lasting impression. He stated that he had more questions than answers about the Christian faith and that we needed to reframe the gospel in terms of the human need for self-esteem.
By contrast, I have relished the past two days as core elements of the faith embodied in the biblical narrative were compellingly presented over and over again.
We’ve been talking about the church as the continuation of God’s narrative. God’s story didn’t stop with the end of Scripture, because just as the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus and ignited the apostolic church and inspired the New Testament writers, he continues to shape the events of the church as it acts as the agent of God’s in-breaking kingdom.
Howard Snyder (Tyndale Seminary, Ontario) kicked off our explorations by looking at the church in five historical periods and examining three aspects of each: the narrative, the redemptive plan, and the way in which the church was most visible. I was particularly struck by his statement that during the first few centuries the church and mission were one. The church didn’t have a mission; the church was mission.
In the panel discussion that followed, Dan Williams (Baylor University) and Chris Hall (Eastern University) asked whether Howard quite had the story right, suggesting that he was mirroring the traditional evangelical account of the early church’s decline and (much) later restoration.
I think many of us have been influenced by that narrative of decline and restoration. I know that I was raised to think that the post-apostolic church fell almost immediately into apostasy and did not experience significant restoration until Luther went to his workshop to find a hammer and some nails. But even if you read the story differently from the way Howard does, you’ll have to agree that his is about the most generous version of the decline narrative you could find. He highlighted genuinely redemptive moments and movements in each of the major eras of the church’s narrative.
Then Jenell Williams Paris (Messiah College) took us through three narratives about the church to examine the way we deal with “the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.” As an anthropologist she helped us think realistically about the church, and she prodded us to think about how best to integrate the good, the bad, and the ridiculous that already exist in our churches. It is not our responsibility to spin the story so that God looks good, she told us. Bad, said Jenell, is never for nothing but always works to advance the narrative towards its proper climax.
David Fitch (Northern Seminary & Life on the Vine Christian Community) challenged us to recover from our Niebuhrian hangover and to look at the ways that capitalism (as a set of values) governs the way we do church. Particularly, that set of values creates and inflates inappropriate desire, and it engenders a greed for numerical growth that distorts ministry. The panelists disagreed sharply about capitalism, but all agreed that if you were to substitute a word like, say, “marketing” for “capitalism,” it would definitely describe the false narrative that the contemporary church has written into its script. The church, all agreed, needs to engage in forming its members spiritually with God’s narrative, and so help them resist being formed by the marketing or capitalist narrative they hear shouted at them every day. In particular, direct engagement with the poor will help believers resist being squeezed into the world’s mold.
Last night, D. H. Williams led us through a description of the early church’s ways of reorienting new believers away from the multiple religious and philosophical stories of Greco-Roman pluralism and providing them instead with a core story that would be a foundation for their lives. Dan gave us a reading of this catechetical process that accented core doctrine. The beginning of catechesis, he said, was focusing the believer on God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and not on the believer’s experience or personal journey. Earliest Christianity was a teaching church. In our panel discussion, we clarified that this did not mean merely abstract doctrine, but rather the complex of revealed truth, moral practice, and ritual experience that provided an irreducible foundation on which to build Christian lives.
And now this morning, Rick Richardson (Wheaton College) has turned our attention to mission. He has given us a rich survey of the origins and various streams of missional church thinking. He has warned us of the dangers of each stream, and he has suggested how we might discern a given congregation’s best approach to mission.
Two of Rick’s remarks caught my attention. First, Rick said that whenever we recapture the eschatological emphasis of Jesus, the missional identity of the church is renewed. Second, Rick suggested that just as we discover our spiritual gifts by using them, a church can discover its missional DNA by expressing it.
That’s it for this conference, except for some important thank-yous:
Special thanks to Chris and Brian Monroe who have webcast and live-blogged this event. Last night when I got home, I found a message from the Wright family, living in Afghanistan, who wished they could have been here at the conference:
“Many thanks for the live webcast!!!!!” they wrote. “Though I'd like to be in Chi-town, it is good to enjoy the thoughtful discussions from the comforts of home. Blessings! [signed] jdw”
And so I want to give a shout-out to the Wright family in Afghanistan and to all the others that joined us via webcast.
Thanks to our publishers, InterVarsity Press and Baker, who have published so many of the books that feed the Ancient-Future movement with insights. And let me also mention Zondervan, which is in the process of bringing out a 30th anniversary edition of Bob Webber’s 1978 book, Common Roots, the volume that started it all.
Thanks also to Northern Seminary and President Alistair Brown for hosting us, to Phil Kenyon and Ashley Gieschen for the incredible detail work they have done, to Karen Roberts and the worship team, to sound engineers Chris and Sheldon, and to all our panelists and presenters. Without any of these, our conference would have been much the poorer.
Plans for next year’s conference are still in the works. We’ll be sure to e-mail those who attended this and previous conferences when we develop the plans.