Troy Bronsink: Of Dying Breeds and Swelling Hopes: A Mainline Emergent in the Reformed Tradition

Here is a brief article by my friend Troy. Good stuff!!!
Of Dying Breeds and Swelling Hopes:
A Mainline Emergent in the Reformed Tradition

by Troy Bronsink
At the beginning of the movie Stranger than Fiction, the narrator tells the story of an extraordinarily boring tax adjuster, Harold Crick, who is calculated and predictable about his appointments, his oral hygiene, and his Windsor knotted necktie. The humor builds in the film as Harold, while brushing his teeth, appears to overhear the narrator and he freezes. At which point the narrator also comes to a halt. Back and forth Will Farrell, who plays Harold Crick, stops and starts his morning routine and the narrator stops and starts with him. At the conclusion of the first scene, the conflict of the plot is introduced. Harold overhears the narrator saying, “Little did he know that this simple seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” To which Harold replies, “What? What? Hey! HELLOOO! What? Why? Why MY death? HELLO? Excuse me? WHEN?”
In my church’s tradition you can overhear another immanent ending, a description of the church as “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” A sign in and for the world of “the new reality revealed in Jesus Christ [which] is the new humanity, a new creation, a new beginning for human life in the world” (G-3.0200 italics added).1 Our Book of Order continues by foreshadowing the chief conflict in our own narrative: “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ” (G-3.0400). And like Harold we scream, “What? What? Hey! HELLOOO! What? Why? Why OUR death? HELLO? Excuse me? WHEN?”
Or do we? Even with it etched into chapter three of our church’s constitution, we rarely turn aside to hear our Narrator speak of the institution of the PC(USA) as a temporary construct designed to point all humanity beyond ourselves at the risk our institution’s very life!
Hope Inspired by the Chance of Losing It All
I didn’t grow up Presbyterian, but the reformed tongue of my Dutch ancestors was part of my family table conversation throughout my childhood. I’m the grandchild of Dutch Reformed grandparents, the son of evangelical megachurch layleaders, and the graduate of a Southern Baptist College. During and after college I spent several years starting para-church student ministries until meeting my wife and following her to her graduate school in the Pacific Northwest where we stumbled into Presbyterianism and to the church in America’s most postmodern pluralist culture. By early adulthood I had discovered the PC(USA) as a great context for incarnation ministry.
I’ve been a PC(USA) minister for three years. I have had the privilege, over my ten years in the PC(USA) to be a part of many innovative efforts, and have a deep friendship with the folks of Emergent Village. I serve on the Emergent Village Coordinating Group and co-lead the Atlanta Emergent Cohort. I earned an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary, where I enjoyed the best of all worlds: Darrell Guder, Anna Carter Florence, and Walter Brueggemann, shaping within me a deep appreciation of context, subtext, and text.
During seminary and since, my wife and I have been committed to the inner city. We live, with our daughter, in a 1920s Altanta neighborhood named Capital View, filled with cultural creatives, young and old working-class neighbors, transitional families, and gentry.
I am a singer-songwriter, and I volunteer with neighborhood community groups, lead creativity workshops in the city, and serve as consultant with churches, coaching and teaching in areas of missional creativity.
Today, as a mainline emergent, I am part of a small anomalous group: simultaneously a dying breed and a swelling hope. But Presbyterian emergence is not, itself, the hope. In its better moments, it is the necessary outgrowth of Presbyterian intuitions and a rhythm of regularly resetting of Presbyterian hopes towards the dreams of God for all the world. Here are some characteristics of how many Presbyterian emergents stumble into this hope:
* As Designers: adapting Order according to the in-breaking world of God, asking, “How does this space, polity, or liturgy function?”
* As Translators: integrating the good news arriving amidst both church culture and wider culture.
* As Joiners: incarnationally involved in a context “already in progress” toward God’s reign.
* As Cultivators: tilling open space for alternatives to volunteer themselves.
* As Artisans: instead of chasing “fads,” deeply acquainted with contexts and media at hand and fashioning them into beautiful new visions.
* As Critics: humble about the socializing dangers of self-referential order.
* As Agitators: mixing oil and water to reveal new gifts from the spirit as well as artificial preservatives or expired ingredients from yesterday’s faithful.

While often construed otherwise, Presbyterianism’s hope cannot be confused with its Order.2 The shape or practices of Presbyterianism will never save us from our imminent death. Our order is, by design, provisional, transitional, and transparent, so that hope can shine through us and in spite of us. To order the gospel community is not to cast it into a fixed proven mold, but rather to shape each community into its uniquely useful and appropriate form. This may well be the Reformed tradition’s lasting contribution to modern Christendom, the genius of contextually tying our Word and Sacrament to the intentional physical work of Ordering. As far back as Calvin and Bullinger, Presbyterians have challenged fixed categories by intentionally tangling practice and authority with the narrative of the gospel and its central figure—the resurrected Jesus Christ, whose Spirit animates the church’s habits of forgiveness and initiation.
One of the best metaphors I’ve found for provisional order is taken from the field of design: in “adaptive re-use” architects, city planners, and developers partner to re-appropriate underutilized buildings from the industrial period of the urban center. They ask what functions the structures can hold today and then “adapt” abandoned warehouses into clothing boutiques, churches into bars, or gas stations into coffee shops. These inventive, trained designers ask what they want the space to “do” and order it accordingly.
I have seen the same thing happen in mainline emerging environments. Participants ask what they want their environment and liturgy to “do.” I have seen sanctuary pews pulled up and placed in a round. I have seen art school students rewrite prayers from the Book of Common Worship into ethereal surrealist meditations. I have seen pulpits turned into prayer altars and park benches into pulpits. I’ve seen coffee shops transformed by Presbyterians into meditation labyrinths juxtaposing quotes of Derrida and Augustine. I’ve seen baptismals filled with sand, and baptismal water drawn from a rain barrel. Everything is fair game—not because nothing is sacred, but that everything is again sanctified for the use of discovering and pursuing the kingdom of God now.
Mainline emergents must ask of all our forms and practices, “how do they function?” Returning to our architectural metaphor, if a door does not function to improve the flow of movement through a building, the feasibility of moving that door is put on the drawing board. Presbyterians are typically resistant to putting “Presbyterian ways” on the drawing board. We have grown defensive about our historical fixed “order,” such that we rarely ask how such order functions. In Presbyterian emergence, however, we return to the adaptive intentions of our foreparents who handed us our sacramental, liturgical, and political order. If you look in the PC(USA) Directory of Worship, it is articulated this way:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acknowledges that all forms of worship are provisional and subject to reformation. In ordering worship the church is to seek openness to the creativity of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church toward worship which is orderly yet spontaneous, consistent with God’s Word and open to the newness of God’s future. (W-3.1002)
Embedded in the Presbyterian tradition is the radical notion that forms are provisional. The very institutional forms are designed with this in mind, and so the church is called “to a new openness to the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world” (G-3.0401c). The church’s form is tied to the world’s future by the Word of God (written and incarnate). To follow the intuitions of Presbyterianism is to adapt these forms in order that they might function as players in the eschatological promise known as good news in Jesus the Christ. To be sure, emergents who adapt rituals and prayers as well as adding open space and silence to our practices can cause disorientation. But these practices can also restore a humility and honest awkwardness to the gathered congregation, an awkwardness that foreshadows our impending obsolescence.
Integrating church practices with creation’s promised future is a tricky task. Working for two years after seminary as a manager of an inner-city neighborhood coffee shop, I saw firsthand the discontinuity between these two. The many neighbors I met taught me that the church has no appeal to them because it has no connection to the better world for which they hope and work. By being open to God’s future we enact the hard, yet good news that God’s work in the world is not all about us. The endgame has a larger team than Presbyterianism. “The new reality revealed in Jesus Christ” is not a bigger and better church, it “is the new humanity, a new creation, a new beginning for human life in the world” (G-3.0200b). The church, then, gathers to anticipate a new culture—not to replicate an old one.
Like missionaries who must translate between cultures and the gospel, emergents are aware and knowledgeable of their culture(s). To be for the world is to value our neighbors and contexts as co-participants in the coming eschaton, and not as targets or funding sources for “our” institution. My experience is that, in their best moments, mainline emergent communities honor this eschatological hope by doing two things: (1) being converted by the good news of Jesus Christ happening amidst both church-culture and wider-culture, as well as (2) transforming church-culture and wider-culture according to this converting gospel. For mainline emergents, church itself is a culture to exegete, and their translating skills must therefore be more integrative. This kind of ministry, then, looks more like having the in-laws at a party with your neighbors. We are translating two things at once.
Thus far, only a handful of innovators that I know of in the PC(USA) have leapt beyond the franchise model of planting churches for “Presbyterian types,” or the diversifi-cation model of a third service, into this kind of deep integrative missionary work. One presbytery in the Chesapeake region funded an emergent ministry that gathers in homes and bars with the young adult amateur-sports-league culture of their city. Another presbytery in the Midwest commissioned a new church development to buy an art gallery and to develop its ministry practices as a part of that creative culture. Another presbytery in the Southeast commissioned two associate pastors to leave their separate congregations and serve as co-New Church Development pastors initiating a holistic spirituality center in the same city. The inventors behind these efforts are not forming outreach ministries. Instead, all of these examples are initiatives by mainline emergents who are deconstructing both narratives of their lived lives and their cultic religious lives.
Another example of emerging integration is the web-based discussion This open source network, spearheaded by two participants in the Emergent Village, has grown into an open dialogue for all types of pastors exploring the emerging layer of the PC(USA), including many watching and learning from the periphery. While the group must work to resist the inertia to become yet another denominational special interest group, Presbymergent (like many mainline emergent conversations) does frequently hit a sweet spot when the two narratives of church- and wider-culture combine to harmonize with a third, approaching narrative of the gospel intended for all of humanity.
Much like the example above, my own work of church planting has been a slow process of joining where the Spirit is already at work and where creation is already crying out. I have lived and worked intentionally in the inner city wearing a number of hats, including house church pastor, creativity group facilitator, coffee shop manager, community organizer, spiritual director, and host to occasional citywide worship gatherings. After seminary I was ordained to this work as a validated ministry of the presbytery working cooperatively with many other organizations, including a local expression of the Christian Community Development Association and the Atlanta Emergent Cohort. Since then I have served as a consultant with many congregations, joining one such congregation as designated pastor for a year. My job in Atlanta is to cultivate possibilities for our neighbors to step into sustainable habits of hope by joining their work with the narrative of the in-breaking kingdom of Jesus Christ.
An emerging church in my context would facilitate spiritual exploration, holistic living, and creativity by operating much like a neighborhood abbey. In this way we would relate to the presbytery in much of the same way a monastic order relates to the wider body of the Catholic Church. We would join various neighbors from all walks of life and types of faith meeting for meditation, reconciliation, health education, academic tutoring, art making, and community building, seeing all these as part-and-parcel to the long process of learning from and following Jesus Christ into the world. This kind of project takes a long-term local investment, and the timing of any resultant “church plant” would come after a series of planting seasons and at the initiative of the local Jesus followers. “Planting,” would then be the fruit of deep integration between local Jesus followers and Presbyterian resources such as myself and the congre-gations and individuals partnering with me.
My most rewarding Presbyterian experience has occurred in the past year-and-half since a commission of three local presbyteries organized to address the need for alternative new church developments. Since then, the Atlanta Area Tri-Presbytery Emerging Church Committee has begun a midwife process with several emerging leaders and communities. Our committee’s first commitment has been to look for the smoke signals of the Spirit’s new work and not just set fires in target areas. Our second commitment is to work like a compost pile that freely nourishes discarded seeds to volunteer into new plants. We want to cultivate space for alternatives to sprout up.
Each of these emerging fellowships have begun in very different ways. The first was at the initiative of a patron who brought together resources and a co-pastoring couple restless for an alternative context for ministry. The second was upon the initiative of a “failed pastor” with extraordinary gifts of love and encouragement, who, after a difficult divorce, knew that forming community was still his call. My own church fellowship effort, Neighbor’s Abbey, began years before the formation of this committee as a validated ministry of the presbytery. Since then it has ebbed and flowed, evolving organically to the point that the practices of gathering for brunch, prayers on the back porch, picking up bottles and abandoned tires, organizing advocacy and enforcement in Atlanta’s issue of human sex trafficking, or going to court as friend of an accused neighbor begin to look and feel like the missional church.
The delight of belonging to this committee has been to watch the intra-translation between these many emergent communities and our existing structured committees. For more than a generation now, presbyteries (middle governing bodies), and not mother churches, have planted new fellowships. Such outsourcing isolated established congregations and their participants from the healthy byproduct of regeneration spilling over during those early naïve, disorienting years of church planting. Now members of the committee (and soon, hopefully, partnering congregations) are nourished for their respective traditional calls by the strange new fruit born of the Spirit as we again share in some of the risk of emerging church plants.
Stranger than Fiction
Awake to the imminent death of our provisional group called the PC(USA), folks like those on this committee, like the dozens of innovative communities starting their own initiatives, and like the hundreds engaging the conversation from the periphery, are digging in with depth to the tradition we’ve been handed and to the context into which God is sending a promised future. The mainline emergents are learning how to “give this whole thing away” for adaptive reuse, with little-to-no strings attached to the sinking ship of our self-interests. The Stranger than Fiction movie protagonist, Harold Crick, had to learn the same thing. He had to give up. After negotiating with his narrator, after reading the manuscript, he recognized and was inspired by the beauty of the future for which he was designed. He had the courage to step into his end and to live with courage and generosity.
For better or worse I speak in a Reformed tongue. I can’t help it—it is in my blood as far back as my Dutch ancestors. I still imagine possible Presbyterian ways for emerging communities to intentionally order their contexts with practices as followers of Jesus. And I continue to find more folks who are doing the same. I think these are the mainline emergents: those hearing the narrator tell us that our days are numbered, that our end is imminent, and yet adapting all we’ve been given to make a life in relationship with tradition for the sake of God’s wider world.
Along the way we are finding the courage, instead, to tie our communities and denomination to the new reality in Jesus Christ, translating the experience to our sending tradition, that together we might be better equipped to participate in God’s purposes.
1. All citations from Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: Book of Order (2007).
2. I was at an ecumenical gathering once when an elder said that the one contribution Presbyterianism offers to church renewal is our form of government, since we were so similar to the United States’ form of government.
See part two of this article, “Artisans, Critics, and Agitators,” and links to a conversation between Ryan Bolger and Troy Bronsink at