Joining the tribe…

John: Jim, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself – where you’re from, what you do, what makes you tick

Jim: I grew up in the upper Midwest of the USA. My family moved around a lot when I was young, so I got to experience a lot of different churches and a lot of different traditions – my parents weren’t tied to one denomination so when we’d move we’d end up going where my parents felt like they were supposed to be. Growing up in the church is one of those things that I think was both positive and negative in my life, in that the stories of the church are a deep part of who I am, but at the same time there’s some unhealthy stuff I grew up with that I’m still unlearning in a lot of ways.

I guess what makes me tick is the desire to find a place. It’s my generation’s struggle, in a lot of ways, figuring out where we fit in – unlike our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, we really don’t have a grand narrative to our lives, we really don’t have something like the Great Depression or World War II or even the Cold War and Vietnam to bring us together. I’m trying to figure out not only where my place is in the world, but also what the church’s place needs to be in an era where the old paradigms don’t fit anymore. In that context, what is my country’s place, or the Western world’s place, in a world where we’re seeing thousands of years of history almost literally blowing up right in front of us

Right now my hope is to go on to a Ph.D. program in communication, where I can really engage the ways in which religion and political culture and language intersect not just in a descriptive way, but in a prescriptive way in trying to help all my various relationships – my church community, my religious tradition, my national heritage – be more effective forces for justice, peace, and equality. I’ve applied at a few schools, and I’m waiting to hear back from them, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

So how did you get involved with the whole emerging church scene?

It’s probably a cliché to say this, but I think in a lot of ways I was an emerging Christian before I knew what emerging churches were. There was always this deep dissatisfaction with a lot of what I saw in so-called “traditional” and even “contemporary” churches – with the artifice, with the false barriers I saw them setting up between “leaders” and “followers” even as they claimed those barriers didn’t exist. There are a lot of good things about these other ways of doing church, and they serve the constituencies they’re designed to serve – but a lot of what I encountered was this entrenched attitude that took it a step farther from “this works for some people and not for others” and went to “this is the way it should be.” I should note that this didn’t really come from anyone in particular, and I’m fairly certain that most individuals in the churches I experienced before my current community wouldn’t say or think things like that, but these things have a way of being institutional voices even as the entire body of the institution might think differently. That’s the character of institutions… sometimes a groupthink takes over that becomes not only more than the sum of the institution’s parts, but can also be 180 degrees from the way most of the institution’s parts think. I think something similar is happening in American politics right now, but that’s another story.

My first encounter with an emerging church is the one I’m still having, with my current community, Tribe of Los Angeles. I started worshipping with Tribe about two months after I started out here at Fuller Seminary; at the time, I was dipping my toes in the water at this massive rock’n’roll service at a large church near where I lived and realizing just how unsatisfying it really was. A few friends of mine checked out Tribe and dragged me along one Sunday by telling me it was a church that worshipped by drumming. My honest reaction at the end of the night was that this was a church where I couldn’t just dip my toes in the water: I had to either jump in or stay out. It took me a few months to figure out that this was where I belonged, but in a lot of ways it was more about confirming a decision than making one.

The thing that hooked me was that this was a church that met in a circle. At the time, it was a very misshapen circle because we were meeting in the pastor’s living room instead of the larger open space we rent now, but this circle mentality pervaded every aspect of the community. Instead of having a worship band, the whole church was the worship band, and anyone could pick up a drum or a shaker and be a part of that. We shared a meal after church every week, and everyone who could would bring something to share. It wasn’t like the big churches I’d been at in the past where I could come in, worship, and leave without anyone knowing my name. Partly because of the cramped quarters and partly because of the dinner, I had to get to know people. It was exhilarating.

I’ve worshipped myself with the Tribe on a good number of occasions now, and one of the things I love about it is that its leader is a woman. Much of the emerging church scene seems to be male dominated. Do you think that debate is over-rated, or does female leadership really produce a different sort of community?

I’m troubled by the fact that so much of the emerging church “scene” is male-dominated. It seems to me that if we’re going to challenge the paradigms of the existing churches, and if we’re going to throw out a lot of the hierarchical stuff that really hurts people, the first thing we’d cast off would be the deep sexism that, in my opinion, has been one of the church’s greatest historical struggles. On the other hand, the fact is that any movement, particularly in the church, is going to be dominated by the people who were educated to be the leaders ten or twenty years ago. From what I’ve seen, we’re only just now getting to the point at a few seminaries in this country where the idea that pastoral service isn’t reserved for one gender is becoming an assumption and not a radical proposition. I think that given ten or twenty years, we’re going to see a lot of women rising up to lead emerging churches, and we’re going to be closer – maybe not there, but closer – to some semblance of gender parity in emerging churches, and in the Church as a whole.

In all honesty, I think the debate about women in church leadership is overrated because I don’t think there should be a debate. The rest of Western culture has figured out that there isn’t a thing in the world a man can do that a woman can’t do just as well. So why are we in the church lagging behind? The liberal part of me thinks the church should be a leader in challenging prejudices, discrimination, injustice, and inequality – not a follower. We’ve allowed ourselves to be followers for fifteen hundred years too many.

As to whether female leadership in general produces a fundamentally different sort of community, I’m honestly not sure. I’ve never been a part of a church like this before, and a lot of that has to do with Rev. Rebecca [ver Straten-McSparran, pastor of Tribe]’s leadership. She’s a guide, a mentor, a teacher, and a sage wherever she goes, and we at Tribe have benefited from that probably more than any of the other communities she’s a part of. But the more I get into it the more I see that there are a lot of people’s fingerprints on this church – people who are still part of our community, people who were but moved on, people who never were but had a deep impact on our lives, people who have been dead for hundreds of years. I can’t imagine Tribe without Rebecca and her guiding and wise voice, but is this a different sort of community in a fundamental and central way than it would be if a man were the pastor and there was the same gender balance in the rest of the body? I can’t say, because I can’t think of another community like this one to compare it to. I don’t know how much of what makes Tribe special is because of Rebecca as Rebecca, and how much of it is because of Rebecca as a pastor who also is a woman; it seems to me that we really can’t separate things out so neatly.