The Church: From Postal to E-mail
During the past 22 years of ministry, Spencer has explored his passion for arts, technology and the church. As an accomplished photographer, he has exhibited his work at galleries and taught at the university level. Humorous, inspirational and surprising are words people use to describe his storytelling speaking style.
He is a sucker for the latest gadget, and if money wasn’t an object, he would have the newest, fastest and best in technology at his fingertips.
Spencer now serves at both THEOOZE and at his church, ROCKharbor, in Costa Mesa, California. As creator and sustainer of THEOOZE, Spencer has the opportunity to merge all of his passions together into one organization as he strives to understand what being a real and authentic follower of Jesus means in our world.
ROCKharbor gives him the privilege to serve on the elder board, the speaking team and as strategic planner, facilitator and counselor to the staff.
THEOOZE is a metaphor for Spencer’s ministry — on the move, unpredictable, nonlinear, journey — rather than destination-oriented.
THEOOZE creates environments where church leaders (traditional teachers/theologians as well as emerging storytellers/artists) can converse about and collaborate on resources and training for the broader faith community. This is done by providing places for people to gather and communicate both online and offline about how to bring the story of Christ to our emerging culture.
Spencer, with Colleen Pepper, is the author of Making Sense of the Church (Zondervan, 2003).
We caught up with Spencer on a sunny California day, chatting in his turn-of-the-century beach shack in Southern California where he and his wife, Lisa, and children Alden and Grace live.
After “touring” the offices of THEOOZE, actually a small lean-to garage that can be entered only by hoisting up a garage door, we began our discussion.
HOMILETICS: Help us understand what the “Emerging Church” is all about — it evokes the image of a chick bursting through a shell.
BURKE: There’s one church. But there are purpose-driven churches, Willow Creek Association churches, Southern Baptist — all kinds of wonderful, amazing churches. The emerging church is almost just another brand, in some ways. The church within the church. The way I look at it is in terms of postmodernism. Postmodernism has absolutely affected all phases of life. In 1949 it shows up in literature, and literature shifted. I have this theory of 20-20-20. So you move 20 years ahead, and it’s the ’60s and the culture has shifted, and in another 20 years in it’s the ’80s and business has shifted, and add another 20 years and faith — not Christianity or the church, but faith and spirituality — has shifted. Look back to the previous decade for clues. For example, in the ’50s McCarthy rules. You are anti-American because you question me. In the ’60s, if you don’t question stuff, you’re un-American. In the ’70s, people believed that they would get a gold watch at retirement. They thought that if they worked for “the man” they’d be taken care of. There was a sense that if you moved from job to job you were flighty, you were an employment risk. In the ’80s that all changed. No one ever assumes he’s going to be taken care of by the company, no one assumes he’s going to get a gold watch. In fact, you’re more employable if you’re able to move from job to job. Go now ahead 20 years from the year 2000. I believe anything we know and understand from the ’90s — these things will be virtually unrecognizable 10, 15, 20 years from now. Our approach to getting people inside our churches today will go the way of the gold watch.
HOMILETICS: So there isn’t going to be a First Emergent Church of Newport Beach, California?
BURKE: No, this is the church — whatever the brand — that’s affected by postmodernism, the church that’s emerging, the church that’s “next.” Whatever you want to call it. You look at the church in Asia, Africa, South America, in Canada, the United States — you can see the latency, that’s beginning to “ooze” out, bubble up to the surface. I’m not sure the emerging church is something you can define in terms of a five-point outline. Rex Miller’s book, The Millennium Matrix, which I love, is analytical. My book, Making Sense of the Church, is metaphorical — it’s developed as a story, conversation or narrative. People read and say, “You didn’t tell me how to create an emerging church.” And I’m like, “No, I gave you story and metaphor to help you think about what it might look like for you.”
HOMILETICS: So what would it look like?
BURKE: This is tricky. I’m not sure that whatever postmodernism does to the church is going to come out on the other side as a one-hour event. I’m not convinced that “church” is going to exist in a building on a Sunday morning. I think we could “do” church that way, we can “go” to church that way, but I’m not sure we’re going to “be” the church that way. So, I’m not convinced that the one-hour worship service is going to actually be the place where people truly worship, where people truly learn.
HOMILETICS: So where will the gathered church gather?
BURKE: Let me frustrate you first, and then give you something [Laughter]. I’ve had 20 years in ministry in the church as we know it now. If I were to look at the church in the past, I would describe it as a postal church, i.e., like the postal system. What’s true about the postal service? They own the routes, they don’t deliver on Sunday, they own the trucks, they own every employee, they own the power of the stamp and delivery. They own it all. It’s top down. It’s event-driven. One o’clock I get my mail, or two o’clock I get my mail, and so on.
I think we’re shifting toward an e-mail world. So what would be true of this e-mail world? There’s no delivery truck, but there is a computer. There’s no stamp, but you have to pay a monthly access fee. There’s no delivery time, you just check your e-mail from your phone, PDA, computer, or you IM, use a Web cam, and so on.
So I wouldn’t try to say what the emerging church will look like for a particular brand of church; it will probably be more decentralized, more accessible by the individuals involved. Does it cost more to send a letter for 37 cents, or does it cost more to send an e-mail? It’s probably about the same, it’s just owned by a radically different set, which then has a radical effect on power and control. The way we evaluate a gathering, evaluate success, evaluate teaching, evaluate worship is going to be in a different way. The metaphor does not mean it’s going to be online. It’s a metaphor, it’s a story about the way people might organize.
HOMILETICS: So what will the church look like — to restate the question!
BURKE: If we ask what will church look like, and our assumption is that church will be in a building at a physical address on a Sunday morning, we’re going to run into problems. No longer, at least in the States, is Sunday morning a sacred space on our calendar. Most shops are open, most sporting events are starting earlier — whatever it is — Sunday is moving toward being just one day of the weekend. What if we say that’s church? My concern is that the very people we want to reach are the ones who will never be able to get to that hour, simply because they’re disenfranchised. Who is it who has to work at Starbucks on Sunday mornings? The young, those who don’t have seniority, and so on. So the very people whom Jesus came to seek and to save and to be with are those who on that “sacred” hour will never be in that church building. So we’ve got some presuppositions in this question. That doesn’t mean postal is going to disappear. There are times when I’m going to want a handwritten note, or a gift that can’t be delivered electronically. But there are other times, though, when I really want an instant message.
HOMILETICS: So they’re just different.
BURKE: That’s right. The questions are: “Where will they worship? Where will they get their teaching? Where will they get the things we hold dear on a Sunday morning?” My feeling is that worship helps us to learn the awesomeness of God, our position in creation, the ability to understand who God is, who we are, who our fellow person is. The sermon helps us to deepen and understand these things, too. That’s about helping people learn to follow Jesus. The gift that postmodernism has given to business, culture, literature and to faith or the church, is that it allows us to unpackage what it is that we’ve somehow held dear, but haven’t been able to let go of yet. It’s the Jupiter effect. When all those planets align — business, culture, literature and spirituality — it makes it so much easier. It happened with Luther, with the printing press and trade routes, and so on.
So if learning is the ultimate goal, then I would say we’re moving from a metaphor of the past which is teaching — teaching people to worship, teaching people what God says — into facilitating. Some people will say that a great teacher is a great facilitator. I don’t need to argue that. Teaching in and of itself is usually different from simply facilitating. With facilitation, you can have teaching and worship, but you can have people learning on the way. I’m wondering if the next movement of the church is more along the lines of people integrating simple truths, great wonderful experiences that integrate teaching and worship — as they go.
We used to have a saying when I was in youth ministry that “I would trade 52 weeks of Sunday school for three days on a mission trip with the kids in another location.” There’s a huge difference between the one- hour event and a three-day immersion in an amazing opportunity to not only be taught it but to be able to do it. My thought is that people will learn more in this cultural shift to not just be taught, but to immerse or interact.
For example, we went to a church where for about 90 minutes we worshiped, sang songs, and there was about a one-hour talk, and the whole thing was on serving the poor and needy. And right across the street was a park where there were about 100 people who probably needed a meal.
For me, I’d say, “Hey, let’s take a halfhour. Let’s sing, let’s worship, tell me the Scripture.” But I’d make sure that people knew to bring something. “Let walk across the street and for one hour, let me sit under that bush. Let me push a kid on a swing who doesn’t have a mom or a dad, and just happened by the park. Let me go and do it, and don’t just send me out and you go to the office. You come with me. And then let’s sit in the park afterward and let me express what I felt — some of the new understandings, but also some of the frustrations. Things I didn’t understand. I didn’t speak the language. I thought I was doing something that honored them, but they took it the opposite way.” I think I would learn more about Christ’s heart for the poor and my obligation to serve those who are disenfranchised in that 90 minute period, by maybe splitting the time.
So church may take on different “feels” by helping people worship and learn outside the building.
HOMILETICS: And leading this change is the pastor and his or her role is changing as well.
BURKE: In Making Sense of the Church, I take seven topics. I wish now it wasn’t seven, but like nine or 12 —
HOMILETICS: No, seven’s perfect!
BURKE: Good, good, good. Seven topics. Leadership. Evangelism. Learning. Mission. Ministry. Faith, and so on. Each of these I play with —
HOMILETICS: Okay, Spencer, we’re talking about the pastor.
BURKE: Right, right. I don’t think leadership is bad. Evangelism isn’t bad. What I think is that there’s bad evangelism. There’s just bad leadership, and we all know it. So the metaphor I use for leadership is that where we’ve been coming from is the “tour guide” style of leadership. If that pastor is going to take the congregation across the street, my concern would be that the pastor would function as a tour guide and not as a fellow traveler. Everything’s set up, the tables are set up in a row, the caterer’s been called. We just show up to make sure it gets done. I think a “fellow traveler” is a more powerful metaphor for a leader.
HOMILETICS: So the pastor walks across the street as a part of the group itself.
BURKE: Maybe we go to buy the food together. In terms of leadership — and this may be heresy — I think that we’ve created a kind of spiritual evolution. We all start out as beloved lambs in the pasture, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. But somehow, I’ve been taught that I will evolve into an entirely different spiritual species called a “shepherd.” I no longer speak “baaa-baaa.” I no longer graze on grass, I go into my home while I let the sheep out into the wild. Occasionally I even stew a sheep and have a good meal! Understand what I mean?
HOMILETICS: Yes, but on the other hand, the very word “pastor” evokes the image of the shepherd, and the Old Testament prophets rail against the false shepherds of the nation.
BURKE: But here’s my question. Wouldn’t you think that Peter was a shepherd, because when Jesus restored him to ministry, he said, “Feed my sheep.” You’d think he’d be a shepherd. Jesus never said shepherd. It’s elder, overseer. But we say shepherd. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever seen shepherds feed sheep. It doesn’t happen. Other sheep feed sheep. I’m afraid that we’ve bought into the idea of replacing the Good Shepherd who will lead us to still waters —
HOMILETICS: But actually how do sheep feed sheep — really?
BURKE: No, no. Mothers feed babies, fathers demonstrate how to eat, flocks show them where the water is. When sheep are sick, a baby loses a mother, others step in.
HOMILETICS: So a pastor is a sheep among sheep.
BURKE: Yes, a fellow traveler. We’ve removed ourselves in leadership. We’ve moved into the Holy of Holies, but we’ve forgotten the veil has been rent. We do not have a high priest who has not been tempted in all points like we have, and that’s a picture of Jesus. Jesus slept with his disciples, walked with his disciples, cried with his disciples. Today, we’ve become shepherds. We’ve insulated ourselves as leaders. I don’t know whether in an e-mail world that that will even be allowed. Here’s the deal. For me, it didn’t do that much good for my heart. I started out in ministry. I wanted to be a minister. I started adding things to my ministry. Before I knew it, I was an ad-ministrator. I’m not sure that that did all that much good for my soul. I think there are false shepherds, and I was one of them, because I wasn’t being true and authentic as a sheep.
HOMILETICS: So when does the pastor/sheep sermonize, and what does such a sermon look like?
BURKE: The sermon is moving from analysis back to story. Sermons might not be as powerfully received with people sitting in rows looking at the back of the head of another person. People must experience things. Why did the lambs know that the grass wasn’t good? Because it was brown and they tried to eat it. Don’t talk about brown grass. On occasion there will be spiritual drought, so let’s get into it and discuss.
HOMILETICS: This is what you say: “Do sermons stink? What value does it add to people’s lives? Is it the best way to communicate God’s truth or is it just a bad infomercial?” Should we do away with the sermon?
BURKE: If you choose to have an event, and you choose to have it in a building, and you choose to have it once a week — and those are big assumptions on my part — okay, in my church we do have sharing. We do have the opportunity to teach, but we let people who have the giftedness of teaching do the teaching. Unfortunately in most churches, the person who has pulpit power is the person who has the church. At Rock Harbor church, we replaced the founding pastor with the worship pastor as the lead pastor because he has the gift of leadership. The teaching pastor actually reports to the worship pastor. It’s an issue of giftedness.
If you are going to want to be teaching in 10 years, then how are you going to interact with the idea that maybe people learn not just through teaching, but facilitating? How are you facilitating people to be involved? I don’t know what percentage of the people are in church on a Sunday morning in the U.S. but I hope that the gospel starts to get to the other 30, 40, 50, 60 percent. We’re probably not going to do that with the traditional, postal approach of the past. And most of the world seems not to use this model that we have.
HOMILETICS: In the past we’ve defined ourselves by what we do or do not believe. Isn’t there a valid role for doctrinal norms, or for creeds? Seems like, in the emerging church, this is a bit squishy and oozy. Isn’t there any sort of theological gatekeeper any more?
BURKE: Absolutely! I believe that with all my heart. And that is the Holy Spirit who will guide us into all truth. For me, theology is a thin cultural veneer over God’s word that allows us to access it for a time and a place and a period, you see. I think what happens is that some of what we hold as theology and dogma can be challenged. For example, when I grew up, my understanding was that Catholics could not be Christians —
HOMILETICS: Or Democrats! [laughter].
BURKE: In my family that was very true! There were people, then, who could not be engaged with our particular set of beliefs. Somehow, all that changed in my world. For others, the doctrine has stayed in place. And I honor those who can not or will not move away from their traditional theological traditions. But for many, there are doctrinal assumptions which today we’re willing to challenge.
HOMILETICS: So evangelism is the attempt to persuade someone not to adopt a creed or doctrinal position, but to begin imitating Jesus.
BURKE: The metaphor I use for evangelism is moving from a warrior mentality to a gardener mentality. A lot of good work has been done in the past 50, 100 years in terms of evangelism, but the vocabulary of evangelism often involved the use of the word “crusade.” No knock on Billy Graham, but you have these “crusades!” Campus Crusade. With the influx of Muslims in our country and the conflict in the Middle East, the word “crusade” — well, let’s lose that word quickly when trying to express the concept of God’s love!
So what if we moved from a warrior metaphor to a gardener mentality? There are plants in the desert that need only drops of water, while rice paddies need to be submerged in water.
HOMILETICS: I love that metaphor, but you’re arguing that you know what you believe and you would not attempt to impose that on me, yet in evangelism are we not inviting people, though, to assent certain crucial theological propositions, to christological, for example — isn’t there some line in the sand which, if you do not cross over, you cannot claim the title Christian, or doesn’t the postmodern church, or the emerging church, care about lines in the sand?
BURKE: I can’t speak for the whole emerging church, but I think the need to draw the line in the sand, meaning who’s in, who’s out, who’s converted, who’s not — I’m trying to look back at Scripture and reread it, and there are things that are popping out at me now that intrigue me. One parable that stands out is the parable of the wheat and the tares. Read it carefully. For me, I’m seeing an important message as a pastor that says, “Be careful not to draw the line in the sand. Be careful not to try to separate the wheat from the tares, be careful not to try to say who belongs to me and who does not belong to me, because you may destroy the very work I’m doing. You may accidentally get rid of the wrong ones in trying to make your garden appropriate — for visitors, I guess.” [laughs]. That’s not the parable, but you know what I mean.
The garden is not a performance arena. It’s a place to labor.
For example, my son, 7 years old, he and I go right down the street to the ocean. The waves are crashing. He’s got his little floatie on, you know, the zip-up life preserver thing. And as we’re playing, he looks at me, he says, “Dad, I love you this much.”
I go, “How much?”
He says, “If the waves were 10 times higher than me, and 40 times higher than you, I would take off my floatie and I’d put it on you and I would sink to the bottom and you’d float to the top. That’s how much I love you.”
And I go, “Isn’t that the gospel?” For me, at present, I am more about trying to love God and my neighbor, more about not trying to see people without the floatie on, running around frantically trying to get floaties on them, but realizing that if Christ came to redeem the world, our job is to make sure that people aren’t stripping the floatie off. “I can do it! I can do it!”
“No, no, put it back on!” There’s a sense that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven a place where the coin rolls away and we go try to find it, the one sheep wanders, and we try to bring it back. I’m not sure it’s about trying to convince everyone that they’re lost, rather than to say that we’re all lost. We’re in this together. But I believe that Christ’s Great Rescue gave us all a floatie. The parable of the sower and seed. Who didn’t get some seeds? They all did. So we must be careful not to harden our heart. Be careful not to get choked out by the worries of the world. In fact, let me help you because you seem to be oppressed, disenfranchised, the widow, the orphan, my shade will help you not be burned by these things of the world.
And then to encourage those who seem to be doing 20, 40, 60, 100-fold in living out their Christian life. I am not so much trying to convince people to get into the kingdom, but rather to continue on the path of what it means to be a beloved child.
HOMILETICS: Let’s talk about your book? Do you mind?
BURKE: No, not at all [laughter].
HOMILETICS: Making Sense of the Church. Has the church ever made sense? And if you’ve made sense of the church, what is the sense of the church?
BURKE: Wasn’t my choice for the title, but I didn’t have a say in the matter. Anyway, I think most people who are a part of our message boards at theooze.com would say that the traditional church doesn’t makes much sense. In fact, they might say, more critically, that the church lacks common sense. How in the world can the church spend so much money on itself on buildings, curriculum, trips and coffee carts — when a world is dying of AIDS, an epidemic far greater than the bubonic plague. People are affected, kids are orphaned every day. That seems to lack common sense for many.
Or, they may say that “We think the church is nonsense.” They look at a postal church and they can’t make sense of it, because they’re e-mail in their culture, their literature, their business practices. Should the church be the last institution to move? I think so. It’s a good thing. I don’t mind if the church is behind the times. I don’t want to gamble my spirituality on fads. But the challenge for the church is, “Where do we go from here?”
Take mission, for example. The mission of the church isn’t about retailing the church — here’s our five steps, here’s a shrink-wrapped program, now go do it — but it’s about whole-saling the love of God. How do we love God, love neighbors? This is the essence, the Great Commandment. This is the central text Jesus gave us at a time when all these people are trying to get him to endorse their political, economic and religious agenda. Jesus says, “No, no, let’s not go there. Let’s just do one thing. Everything else will fall into place.” But I don’t want to retail a Great Commandment Church, or a Beatitude Church. I just want to wholesale the love of Jesus. These other ways, purpose-driven, Willow Creek, are all biblically based. But once we begin to say that it is the biblical way to do church, we’re in the same danger of those who pestered Jesus wanting his endorsement.
HOMILETICS: What’s with “the ooze”?
BURKE: It’s a metaphor. It’s like this. Mercury. Once I broke a thermometer, the mercury was released, and I watched it bubble apart. I could see my face in it. And when I put my finger on it, it bubbled apart and resisted, and then it would come back together again. In a sense, God got out of the thermometer. We thought mercury was only good for evaluating things. And mercury’s dangerous. And that’s okay. God is really dangerous, too. And for us to think we can control God only in a sterile environment that only gauges temperature, or that lets us know how we’re doing! I think we should see our reflection in God. Every time we try to put our thumb on God, God just takes off. Every time we back off, God can get back together again! Perhaps that’s what we’ve done in the past, trying to put our thumb on God and that’s why we have so many different ways of looking at God in our denominations. Maybe that’s what postmodernism does is to allow God to roll back together again — sometimes — in wonderful ways. And then separate again. Because I don’t think that mercury is any less mercury together or bubbled apart. Somehow we’ve equated big and large with what’s successful.
HOMILETICS: Okay, so back to “ooze.”
BURKE: So the ooze is oozy. It’s a place where at one end you’ll have Southern Baptists and at the other end you’ll have the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. We’ve got 100,000 people every month from 90 different counties. They come in from Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Mormon, Buddhist congregations — it doesn’t matter. They all know they’re coming together to talk about the church and who Christ is. But it’s fascinating to me that they don’t have to embrace a creed in order to have conversation. I think that’s what’s oozy. They respect and honor each other so that if someone is flaming on someone they make sure there’re no personal attacks. In the past, there was a sense that you couldn’t go outside your denominational lines. If denominations and associations were the means of networking in the past, a postal approach, I think you’re going to find people networking in a different way in an e-mail world today and in the future. These people offer themselves in story, not analysis.
So it’s oozy. God is oozing out of the cracks and into the gutters. I’m thinking, “If Jesus hung around today, and I’m not like ‘What Would Jesus Blog?, ’ but if Jesus was hanging around, who would these people be?” I mean we have SensibleErection.com sending 500 people over a day, Christians for Canabis hanging out. It’s like, you name it, they’re there. In a sense, it’s a place where the tax collectors and harlots and drunkards of the spiritual world can say, “I want to be real and I need to find a way to have it all make sense.”
We’re in a time of transition. We need to realize we’re all the church. And in that assumption we need to realize that many of us are going to do it differently. And the culture is probably going to call upon us to offer both — the postal and the e-mail. It would be rude, mean and unthinkable to somehow close down postal churches. My mission is not to destroy that. My mission is to reach the 80 percent that don’t connect to postal. It’s not an either/or. There is no threat. There are so many people that need to be touched with the love of Jesus!