25 Jan 2008 02:39 pm
A few years ago I was busy with what I believed to be the final “phase” of my ministry-that is to say that I was working in a traditional church where I thought I’d be for many, many years. Then a funny thing happened. I went to a pastor’s convention in Nashville, but instead of attending the convention I signed up for, I went to the convention downstairs called “Emergent Church”. I’d never heard of that movement, but I was about to give up everything in order to be a part of it.
What attracted me to the emergent church was, in essence, the very thing I’d been afraid of for so long-small churches, a generous orthodoxy (as Brian McLaren has so beautifully put it), and enough mystery to make it feel like one was trying to nail Jell-O to the wall when discussing it. But perhaps the main attraction was an emphasis on story and post-modern hermeneutics.
Story, or narrative, is the starting point for emergent teaching, worship, and even format (although there is very little format to speak of). Wikipedia describes it this way: “Narrative explorations of faith, Scripture, and History are emphasized in emerging churches over exegetical and doctrinal approaches (such as that found in systematic theology and systematic exegesis), which are often viewed as reductionist but not rejected wholesale.”
Post-modern hermeneutics was probably the scariest, but most alluring, part of this new movement (for me). This approach recognizes multiple voices and viewpoints when encountering the narrative of history, in particular, the Biblical narrative. It understands that scripture was written in a particular place and time, and that although we can and should glean lessons from it, we must not think it’s a “black and white” rulebook for all of time. As such, many in the emergent community have open interpretations of scripture, and are unlikely to believe something simply because it’s always been taught a certain way. Love and respect for all of creation, honoring a variety of “lifestyles” and family systems, a concern for true justice, and a “living in God’s kingdom now” mentality are common.
So it was with this new insight and inspiration that I left my former post and set off to start an emergent Quaker Meeting. Several of my friends (big & little “F”), along with my husband and I, began meeting in a rented space behind our yearly meeting office. This was in the fall of 2004. At the time, we did a lot of experimenting-we tried several formats, had a variety of things to do, like book clubs and social gatherings, and used ‘tools” such as candles and low lighting to aid in our worship time. After a time it became apparent that we still had not found ourselves. This led to a painful journey that challenged us a community and as individuals. In the end, we realized that if we were to have the intimate, authentic community we were seeking, we must abandon our building and go into our homes. Thus began the “three week Hillel cycle”. For three weeks at a time, we meet in one of our member’s homes for snacks, “catching up”, and silent worship. We don’t focus on learning through a traditional sermon-I am among the few pastors who can say that’s not a part of my job. Instead, we seek to learn through messages brought in Meeting, and through small groups that we call “shepherding groups”. The term “small groups” is misleading-Hillel only has 7 to 9 attendees, but we get together on a smaller scale in order to read, talk, and learn together about a subject of our choosing. We also get together frequently for dinner, volunteering, movies, and other things that friends do. Community and a relationship that’s interdependent upon God and each other is the very crux of Hillel’s existence; we don’t have any particular goals for the future-no big budget plans, no plan to move back into a building, no committees that may weigh us down. There is talk of a Hillel intentional community, but that could be many years off. We focus instead on the “now”, busying ourselves living in the Kingdom that is already present and at work around us. It’s worked so far, so we probably won’t tweak it too much!
Hillel has had it downsides, too, of course. We received funding for a time, but ultimately felt led to forfeit the money when criticism of our practices and beliefs got to be too loud. Actually, it’s been a good thing-we’ve been self-sustaining for almost two years, and can truly rely on what Christ wants for us instead of the current church-political environment that we find ourselves in. We have had visitors-some have stayed, but many more have moved on. And we have little money with which to work with. From the very start, I have had to be a bi-vocational pastor, earning a living by owning and operating a small pet care business, speaking at another Meeting in town, and teaching. But that’s fine with me-it gives me a chance to spend my days doing a variety of things that I love to do. It also gives me a chance to be what I call a “slacker pastor”-spending my ministry time having meals and conversing with folks and being IN their lives, rather than sitting in a church office all week doing “big church” work. It is my plan to attend ESR and earn my M.A. in Quaker studies. I’d like to teach Quakerism in the future as one of my “side” jobs. It is very important to me to help others-in both the school environment and at Hillel-to understand and appreciate our rich Quaker history. I believe it is essential too. We must know our history in order to make wise decisions about where to go next, regardless if you are emergent or traditional.