"Signs of Life" by Christie
“Signs of Life” by Christie

Following up on yesterday’s post about the theme of exile at the NEXT Church National Gathering, here are some further thoughts about the biblical narratives we use to help us understand our situation and tell our stories.

There are essentially three sweeping narratives in the Bible, all three of which are variations of the same archetype.

  1. The exodus from slavery in Egypt to the freedom and new beginnings of the promised land.
  2. The Babylonian exile and the return home.
  3. Jesus’ death and resurrection.

(The fact that the exile was interpreted by biblical writers as a second exodus is our prototype for using biblical narratives to understand our own situation.)

There are obviously many more biblical stories available for this kind of interpretive work, but these are the central narratives that have most shaped the biblical worldviews.

So which one do we use to describe the recent history and current situation of mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA)? The exodus is the paradigmatic narrative of liberation but doesn’t really fit the mainline situation (though Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination demonstrates how to use the abandonment of the exodus narrative and ideals for a prophetic critique of contemporary culture.) I’ve already discussed why I think exile is inadequate.

What, then, about death and resurrection? From the beginning of the movement and again several times this week, NEXT leaders have adamantly opposed the “death of the mainline” narrative in favor of a more hopeful posture. I understand that impulse. It can be a downer to own the decline narrative that has characterized mainline Protestantism for decades. I wasn’t raised in mainline Protestantism so I don’t necessarily share the same kind of attachment to these institutions that many do, but I get it. (This sometimes unspoken attachment is no doubt one of the reasons the exile narrative is so compelling.) And for Presbyterians in particular, NEXT came into being around the same time that the Fellowship/ECO movement was using “deathly ill” language to describe the church and the progressive constituency of NEXT has a gut level opposition to that characterization.

I don’t find the death and resurrection narrative problematic. The decline of mainline Protestantism (really, all of Protestantism) isn’t really debatable. It’s a fact that has been unfolding for decades. I take it as a given. Let’s name it and move on. (At NEXT, I loved MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s line about “an end worthy of remembrance.”)

But the more compelling and inspiring aspect of this narrative is the birth of something new that follows the death of the old. Take your pick of the version(s) of this story making the rounds: Phyllis Tickle; Harvey Cox; Brian McLaren; Doug Pagitt; Dianna Butler Bass. This is the narrative I want to live into.

Maybe it’s been overused by now (like “exile”), but emergence captures the spirit of this narrative. Specifically, I understand the core of Jesus’ ministry as the emergence of God’s kingdom. (See what I said about this in 2011.)

Which of these narratives will we choose? (As Joe Morrow mentioned in a Facebook comment, we don’t have to limit ourselves to one. Different groups within the church may be drawn to different narratives.)

Or, perhaps the question really is: which narrative has chosen us?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. I’m preaching this Sunday at a congregation that will almost surely vote to close at a congregational meeting immediately after worship. Churches like Fourth are a long way from that particular moment but already need to begin living into the death and resurrection of our inherited ways of being/doing church. The deep question we all need to ask ourselves is “Do we really mean it when we confess, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body?'” when the bodies in question are our churches.

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