Take Away The Stone - Shedding Light Inside The Emerging Church
“Take away the stone!”
Shedding Light Inside the Emerging Church
By Bill Dahl
The Smell Test
Man has a tendency to respond with fear and trepidation when confronted with the prospect of something emerging. Entire industries are based upon creating new realities whose emergence is dependent upon our reaction to them. Consider action-adventure movies, horror movies, extreme sports, and some noteworthy reality television shows like Fear Factor. We have become conditioned to crave, as well as dread, emergence. Whether we are conscious of it or not, emergence is an ongoing, indispensable quality of the human condition and human civilization.
In John chapter 11, Jesus approached the tomb where Lazarus was laid and said, “Take away the stone.” The immediate response from Martha was fear and trepidation: “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Frankly, Martha’s expression was rooted in the fear of the unknown and an inability to comprehend the capacity of God’s power. Today, man continues to struggle with the smell test of faith in response to God’s leading toward revealing more of Himself to us.
Today, there is an emerging awareness that has begun to waif from within Christendom. Theologian Brian McLaren captures the essence of this scent, suggesting: “We Christians cannot continue to avoid knowing what we already know: that something is rotten in the state of our religion.” Is it possible that, even today, we are balking at the thought of bursting through the barriers that man has somehow sealed the entrance to our understanding of and relationship with God? Are we fearful about what may emerge? Let’s follow the aroma, shall we?
Stones In The Road
As I contemplate the scene of Jesus at the entrance to the tomb of Lazarus, several often overlooked, yet terribly poignant realities regarding emergence within the Christian are revealed:
- The entire scene is in John chapter 11, is preceded by Jesus healing a blind man (John 9:1-12). The religious establishment (The Pharisees) began investigating the healing (John 9:13-34). In this passage, the Pharisees claim Jesus had broken the rules of the established religious laws, questioned their understanding of God, and threatened the mainstream religious order. Jesus delivers a parable on spiritual blindness (John 9:35-41). The significance here is that Jesus is attempting to significantly alter the current belief system and practices of the established religious order of the day. Jesus was proposing and modeling a new, emerging way of relationship with God.
- In John chapter 10:22-42, Jesus continues to deal with the unbelief of the Jews. The Jews become so upset, they began picking up stones to stone Him (John 10:31). Jesus escapes and persists. Many followed Jesus and came to believe (John 10:42). People were emerging out of what they had believed, into a new belief system.
- In John chapter 11, Jesus continues to focus on opportunities to penetrate the walls of belief the Jews had come to surround themselves with, and confine God to. In this chapter, the mind of man is focused on the belief that Lazarus is dead and God cannot do anything more. Jesus looks upon the stone man has placed at the entrance to the tomb and recognizes the emergent opportunity…a moment to disclose The God of More to man. Jesus was expanding their current notion of God.
I submit to you that Jesus’ command to “Take away the stone” is not a phrase uttered some two thousand years ago that has somehow lost it resonance as it has echoed throughout the corridors of time. The history of the Christian faith indicates that this phrase is the mantra for the Christian movement. It is a phrase that God inhabits and ordains. It is plain speak to move beyond what we believe we know about God, continue to learn how we relate to Him, surrender to His transforming power, and reflect His loving witness to this planet, according to whatever epoch of history we find ourselves in. This, in my opinion, is the essence of what the present day terms emerging church, emerging Christianity and emergent refer to.
Clearly, in this passage, the stone blocking the way to relationship with The God of More is one that had been placed there by man. All too often, the focus of teaching in John chapter 11 is on the miracle of Lazarus coming out. The history of the Christian faith has been one of an ongoing effort to remove the stones in the road placed there by those who came before us. Sometimes, we reach junctures on our spiritual journey where we are faced with removing a large stone at the entrance to a passageway that blocks our progress. Let’s proceed a bit further and explore what this looks like.
At the entrance to any cave, people tend to pause. The question, “I wonder what’s inside?” inevitably arises. The typical responses of the reluctant include: “I don’t care…I’m sure as heck not going in there! What good could possibly come out of a place like that? You go first---I’ll follow you. I forgot my flashlight. It’s getting late. Let’s move on shall we? Who cares? We’ll have to move those stones away from the entrance to get in. Let’s go home. I’ll bet it smells in there anyway.” These are the folks who adore certainty and avoid risk.
Then there are those who respond boldly. These folks typically react with courage when the possibility of exploring the unknown rears its head. Their reaction at the entrance to a cave sounds like this: “Wow! Look at this! Let’s see what’s in there. Let’s take away the stone.” These are the one’s who make the discoveries that populate the history of mankind. They blaze new pathways for the rest of us to enjoy.
Needless to say, the written accounts of the innumerable, ongoing expeditions of man following God are populated with people of both types characterized above. One thing that is absolutely clear to me as I examine the historical records of those who have journeyed with God before our present moment in history: Man’s understanding of God continues to emerge. It’s what’s inside us that determines whether or not we will follow God’s leading, penetrating the existing barriers to discovering new horizons of His Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. As one author suggests, “God needs some of us to be change makers, not routine sustainers, to live dangerously, not just enjoy reading about it – to pioneer new ways of thinking and living because the old ways are tired and boring.”
Those who comprise the expedition commonly referred to as the emerging church are the risk-takers, the explorers, and the adventurers. They are the one’s who recognize that “We must learn how to perceive the living God who is building a new world in unexpected places and shapes; indeed, we must learn what it means to enter the new world of God. In short, we relearn the meaning of being a Christian.”
My experience with these folks is not that emergent Christians are rightfully characterized solely on the basis of their love for the journey or the thrill seeking dimension of faith exploration. That would be a diabolical oversimplification. If there is one overriding characteristic that I have observed among the emerging church, it is a love for their leader, Jesus Christ. They acknowledge the present day reality that Jesus is The God of More --- that there is more to the Christian life than what man has come to define and confine Him to. Emergent Christians? Emerging Church? Emerging Christianity? Then again, what’s in a label anyway? Let’s take a look at the label issue for a moment.
The Emerging Label
Everything available for us to buy into today has some sort of a label on it. I guess labels are intended to identify the things we can’t necessarily see. Most labels on food products and medications are designed to be a guide that allows us to evaluate the extent to which the product will address our appetite or ailment. The overriding issue that these labels address is our health. Heaven knows that we humans have become as adept at creating labels denoting spiritual health (or absence thereof) as we are with labels representing our physical well-being. The emerging label is no exception.
When people go on a journey, they typically have a name for it. They say things like “I’m going to a conference, a meeting, or a vacation in Palm Springs, Orlando, or New York.” When large numbers of people are moving from one place to another, the group of people associated with the movement typically has a name or a label attributed to them (whether they come up with the name themselves or it is imposed by others outside their group). According to Acts 11:26, this labeling was true of the origins of the term Christians, denoting those belonging to Christ. The function of the label is to assist in identifying individuals within a group of people, as well as the group itself. Oftentimes, labels are used to identify outsiders – those who are no longer members of the status quo and/or majority. Labels tend to emerge when the need to identify those breaking away from the majority begin to occur in recognizable numbers.
As I stated earlier, the history of the Christian faith is distinctly the history of emergence. Today, there are literally thousands of names for different denominations of what the term Christian originally meant (if there ever actually was just one meaning that was widely understood and accepted – by both insiders and outsiders). So what’s the big deal?
Frankly, the big deal is what the established Christian denominations in the western, developed world have to lose, and are losing. George Barna has said, “It is quite astounding that although Protestant and Catholic churches have raised - and spent – close to one trillion dollars on domestic ministry during the past two decades, there has been no measurable increase in one of the expressed purposes of the church: to lead people to Christ and have them commit their lives to Him.” For emergent Christians, there seems to be agreement that “We have learned that maintaining the status quo serves neither God nor the people He loves.”
When things emerge, other widely held beliefs, attitudes, pathways, rituals and institutions become displaced and outmoded. They feel threatened. They become insecure and defensive. They identify those who comprise the threat and label them. Emergence is a recognition that something has formed and is threatening to displace that which occupies established space. It is a snapshot of a moment in time when an underlying tension becomes apparent. Emergence is akin to two tectonic plates beneath the surface of the earth grinding together until something gives way, and an earthquake rumbles through that which man has built upon supposedly rock-solid ground.
Those who prognosticate movements of God’s Spirit are oftentimes labeled like those who forecast the upcoming probability of an earthquake. They’re considered heretics. There are those in the emerging church who are boldly proclaiming the necessity for a greater awareness of the urgency of such a realization for those outside and within Christendom: “First, everyone should be a heretic. Our times demand it. These are not times for conventional wisdom. New ideas for new times are needed now. All around us imaginative people are rethinking and re-imagining the possibilities of what it means to be human.” These emergent Christians are those who are calling for us to “take away the stone.”
Summary - The Emerging Church 2007
In 2007, the new label that has the Christian faith abuzz in the western, developed world is the Emerging Church. When human beings are confronted with understanding something, we typically resort to the search for answers with questions like: “How tall are they? How much do they weigh? How many are there? Where do they live? Is that one? What do they believe? How do I recognize one? Where do you find them?”
Answer: I don’t know. Nobody really does if they’re honest about it. We seem to be living in one of those in-between times (if there has ever been an era when we have not been living as such). As one scholar notes: “The hardest part is not envisioning the end but living in the sluggish in between.” However, there are several observations I can make that may be helpful:
Movements of God’s Spirit have been occurring ad infinitum. However, man’s ability to recognize and participate in them have been, well, problematic. Man attempts to define these movements and the people ascribed to them, through the use of man-made words. We attempt to categorize people into recognizable boxes. Typically, these attempts are guided by discerning people’s beliefs (by what they say), actions (by what they do), places (where they hang out together), experiences (our interaction with them). Man attempts to understand by developing a flavor for these phenomena by relying on the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
Yet, one distinctly interesting characteristic of the emerging church is unlearning how we have learned to have relationship with God, as a methodology or approach to embracing The God of More, Jesus Christ. As Thomas Merton said, “The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.” The emerging church is also a phenomenon that embraces the reality that “We must always acknowledge that our religious traditions can be both a cause for oppression and an inspiration for liberation.”
Fundamentally, the emerging church is dedicated to the present day challenge of Jesus to take away the stone…to move beyond the artificial boundaries of where established religion has come to confine us, and Him, to. It is those who are motivated to take up the challenge inherent within the smell test of faith. “Once we clean up our act, our lives will become a pleasing fragrance not just to the Lord but also to those around us on Earth.”
The emerging church---Hopefully, it just might become A reality for the rest of us…It’s all about us – God, you and me. I confess “it is way beyond me even to try to explain what God can and cannot do, or what God will or will not do.” However, I have an unwavering sense that The God of More, Jesus Christ, has much more to accomplish with my life, your life, the human race and our existence on this planet than we have been led to believe. We are actually composed of God, you and me. Perhaps this article might assist you in beginning to live this possibility. I am certain that “We are capable of far more than we think.” (emphasis is mine).
I’ll conclude with the words of Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Google® emerging church. Begin a new chapter in your own personal faith journey with Jesus. Contemplate His call to Take away the stone!
About The Author:
Bill Dahl is a freelance writer from Redmond, OR. His work has been published in dozens of national and international publications, websites, ezines, journals and newspapers. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his site at www.theporpoisedivinglife.com or www.billdahl.net. All Rights Reserved. An edited version of this article appears in Plain Truth Magazine November 1, 2007 Issue. For Reprint Permission contact Bill Dahl in writing.
 McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI © © Copyright 2004 by Youth Specialties, p. 268.
 Barrett, Mike The Danger Habit – How To Grow Your Love of Risk Into Life Changing Faith, Multnomah Publishers, A Division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Mike Barrett, p. 28.
 Marsh, Charles The Beloved Community – How Faith Shapes Social Justice From the Civil Rights Movement to Today, Basic Books – A Member of the Perseus Books Group, Cambridge, MA Copyright © 2005 by Charles Marsh, P.214.
 NIV John 11:26 and footnote
 Barna, George The State of the Church: 2002, Published by Issachar Resources, a division of Barna Research Group, Ltd., 5528 Everglades Street Ventura, CA 93003 Copyright © 2002 by George Barna p. 63.
 Caldwell, Kirbyjon & Kallenstad, Walt with Sorensen, Paul Entrepreneurial Faith – Launching Bold Initiatives to Expand God’s Kingdom, WaterBrook Press, A Division of Random House, Inc., Copyright © 2004 by Kirbyjon Caldwell, Walt Kallenstadt and Paul Sorensen, p. 1.
 Burke, Spencer and Taylor, Barry A Heretics Guide to Eternity, Copyright © 2006 by Spencer Burke. JOSSEY-BASS Publishers, A Wiley Imprint, p. 225 (This citation is from a pre-publication copy of this book. The citation may differ in the published version of the book.).
 Marsh, Charles The Beloved Community – How Faith Shapes Social Justice From the Civil Rights Movement to Today, Basic Books – A Member of the Perseus Books Group, Cambridge, MA Copyright © 2005 by Charles Marsh, P.5.
 Merton, Thomas. Seeds, SHAMBHALA, Boston Copyright © 2002 by Robert Inchauti, p. 15.
 Wallis, Jim. God’s Politics-Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, HarperSanFrancisco San Francisco, CA Ó Copyright 2005 by Jim Wallis, p. 67.
 Barna, George Grow Your Church From the Outside In, Regal Books – A Division of Gospel Light Ventura, CA Copyright © 2002 by George Barna, p. 160.
 Campolo, Tony Which Jesus? – Choosing Between Love & Power, W Publishing Group, A Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, TN. Copyright © 2002 by Tony Campolo, p. 63.
 McManus, Erwin Raphael Soul Cravings-An Exploration of the Human Spirit, Nelson Books, a Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright © 2006, p. Destiny – Entry 5.
 NIV – Isaiah 43:18-19