emerging church

Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering. Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.

Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.

For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.

"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.

"A lot of these people thought that needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others. ... What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."

Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."

The plan, explained the Rev. Chris Seay, was for 10 members to have Erickson's images permanently tattooed onto their bodies shortly before Ash Wednesday. These volunteers would stand in the church's gallery on the first night of Lent, surrounded by photos of their tattoos -- photos that would then remain on display throughout the season.

Instead, at least 60 members of the church have visited one of the dozen or so nearby tattoo studios to mix blood, sweat and ink and another dozen have scheduled appointments. Seay said as many as 150 may end up taking part, out of a flock averaging about 1,500 worshippers in five weekend services.

"I have spent way more time than I ever expected trying to talk some people out of doing this," he said. "People need to give this decision some serious thought. ... It's also good to seek the permission of your spouse."

The pastor decided to cover his right upper arm with an image of a tree growing out of an empty coffin -- Erickson's symbol for Jesus rising from the dead. Seay had a tattoo artist inscribe a tribute on the trunk in honor of his grandfather, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who died this past year.

"I was a bit worried at first," he said, "but my grandmother said she thought it was beautiful."

One church member, who works with cancer patients, had the "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" image -- a rose in a coffin -- tattooed on one foot and plans to add the resurrection image on her other foot. One mother selected the "Jesus Meets His Mother" image, which is a rose surrounded by symbols of suffering. Another member, with his wife's blessing, plans to have all 10 images tattooed onto his body.

The project has already created buzz in the tattooing community, said Erickson.

But the key is not that some members of this church decided get tattoos. The key is that more than half of its members already had tattoos -- like 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25, according to a Pew Forum study.

"Our invitation to do this was not for everybody," said Erickson. "We're not creating a tribe, here. You don't have to have a tattoo to come to this church. ... But we already have so many people here who do have tattoos and those images are part of their stories. We're telling them that it's good for them, that it's normal, to add Christian symbols into that mix. They get it."

Real, live, postmodern preacher

The Rev. Gordon Atkinson had few specific goals when he started planning his 13-week sabbatical from his duties at Covenant Baptist Church near San Antonio. "I knew that I didn't want to be in charge of anything," said Atkinson, long known as the "Real, Live, Preacher" to those who read his intensely personal online journal (reallivepreacher.com).

"Preachers talk and talk and I wanted to get away from that. I didn't want to be a worship tourist, but I thought it would be refreshing to worship in some places where I was the person in the room who knew the least about what was going on."

It helps to know that Atkinson leads an unusual Baptist flock, a "contemplative Christian community" that holds spiritual retreats based on the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and men's fellowship meetings over beer and pizza. Covenant's belief statement stresses that the "fullness of the gospel cannot be contained in any one church."

While proud of his Baptist heritage, Atkinson said the "glory days" when "moderate" and "conservative" Baptists fought to control the old corporate machinery are long gone. Now, many congregations are experimenting with "emerging," "post-denominational" and "postmodern" identities and forms of worship.

Thus, Atkinson began his sabbatical by visiting the radical stillness of a Quaker gathering, a tradition that asks believers to remain silent until God inspires someone to speak. For 30 minutes, every cough, sneeze or stomach growl was audible.

"You have to lose a lot of your shame when you sit in silence with people," he wrote. "These sounds are not disturbing to the time of worship. Not at all. They are the delightful sounds of humans trying to be quiet. And we cannot. ... So even the sounds of people trying to be quiet are a part of the lesson."

A few Sundays later, Atkinson found himself swimming in words and symbols when his family visited an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary.

"It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation," he wrote. "I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations."

The experience, he concluded, was an "ADD kid's nightmare," with the "robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling. ... There was so much going on I couldn't keep up with all the things I couldn't pay attention to."

His family struggled, but Atkinson had tears in his eyes by the end of the nearly two-hour liturgy. After years of focusing on user-friendly ways to attract people to church, he was stunned to attend a service that -- much like the Quaker meeting -- placed intense demands on all the participants.

It was, he concluded, as if visitors were being told: "You don't know what Theotokos means? Get a book and read about it. You have a hard time standing for two hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. ... THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE."

Atkinson was intrigued and eventually attended Russian, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox churches.

Nevertheless, by the end of his sabbatical this liberal Baptist preacher knew he had a problem. While Atkinson appreciated the symbols, rituals and sacraments he encountered, he also knew that he couldn't accept the doctrines that defined the worship, especially the Orthodox rites.

Simply stated, his views on sin, sexuality, salvation, heaven and hell were too modern. There was "no wiggle room" in the ancient doctrines and, Atkinson concluded, "I just couldn't buy all of it."

Now he is returning to his Baptist pulpit, while hearing choirs of voices arguing in his head representing many different eras of church history.

"What I don't know how to do is rank all of these voices and decide who has authority," he said. "Who is right and who is wrong? ... And I want to know, where does Gordon Atkinson fit into this whole picture? I know that I can't go back to the old Protestant, evangelical way that I was, but I don't know where I'm supposed to go now. This is a problem."

Baptist take on spirituality

Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.

When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.

"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.

"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."

The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.

One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.

Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.

When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."

Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.

Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.

"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."

The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.

"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."

Memory eternal, Robert E. Webber

During one of his early visits to London, Billy Graham was confronted by an Anglican leader who causally dismissed the entire crusade effort.

"Young man," said the priest, "I do not approve of your style of evangelism."

"I'm sure that what I'm doing isn't perfect," replied Graham. "But I like the evangelism that I'm doing better than the evangelism that you're not doing."

Robert E. Webber knew that collision of styles inside out.

The theologian spent most of his career working with people on both sides of the cultural divide captured in that familiar anecdote about the world's most famous evangelist. It helped that Webber -- who died April 27, after an eight-month struggle with cancer -- had lived and worshipped in both camps.

As a graduate of the proudly fundamentalist Bob Jones University, Webber knew all about the style of evangelism that many believers can condense into a single blunt question: "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" Yet, as a convert to the Episcopal Church, he also knew how to talk to those who are offended by any discussion of evangelism or, as unsophisticated folks call it, "saving souls."

"The problem with evangelism is that churches either do it or they don't," Webber told me, before a Denver speaking engagement in the mid-1980s. This was about the time that he began to emerge as an influence on progressive evangelicals, in large part because of his strategic years teaching at Wheaton College, home of the Billy Graham Center.

"I think every church that is alive has within it people who are gifted at evangelism," he added. "If a church doesn't have these people, then there are some tough questions that have to be asked. ... You may be dealing with a dead church."

Media tributes to Webber this past week have focused on his trailblazing work encouraging evangelicals -- through his writings, both popular and academic -- to begin weaving strands of ancient rites and prayers into the fabric of contemporary Protestant worship. An ecumenical document rooted in his work, entitled "A Call to An Ancient Evangelical Future" (aefcall.org), challenged its readers to "strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings."

Webber's convictions can also be seen in the titles of his books, such as "Worship Is a Verb," "Ancient-Future Faith," "Worship Old and New" and the once-scandalous " Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail." In 1998, he founded the Institute for Worship Studies (now known as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies), a high-tech global graduate school based at Grace Episcopal Church of Orange Park, Fla.

This liturgical approach was a hard sell, especially in the age of media-driven megachurches offering services tuned to fit the fast-paced lifestyles of suburbia.

"The truth is that we Americans are a-historical," wrote Webber, in "The New Worship Awakening," a book rereleased several times during the past dozen years. "Most of us know very little about history and probably care even less. What we are interested in is the now, the moment, the existential experience. Unfortunately, most churches in this country have the same mentality."

However, there was a flip side to his tough message targeting evangelicals.

Webber was convinced that far too many liturgical Christians -- Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the Orthodox -- have abandoned the task of evangelizing nonbelievers and those estranged from the faith. In their rush to reject what Webber called a "Lone Ranger," "hit-and-run" style of evangelism, the leaders of these flocks have veered into apathy and silence.

There is also a chance that many of them no longer want to discuss sin, evil, repentance, grace, death and, horror of horrors, heaven and hell. These eternal concerns are not going to fade away, said Webber.

"What lies behind the views of people who see these doctrines as negative, as subjects to be avoided, is probably an embarrassment about the historic Christian faith," he explained. "Until a church is ready to reckon with historic Christianity, it is not going to be interested in evangelism. ... So I am probably not even talking to what you could call the average, mainline, liberal church."