I have now spent several days ruminating over the Elephant Room, Round 2. I have what amount to two reactions that I feel comfortable making in a public forum. First, I am left with the same major objection after the telecast that I had before the telecast: Exactly what qualifies as a “diverse” perspective to the reformed Evangelical crowd represented by MacDonald and Driscoll? The guests certainly didn’t (and still don’t) seem all that diverse to this Pentecostal turned Episcopalian. Second, while my convictions as an Evangelical have been waning over the last four years, I think the Elephant Room (as a concept and in execution) provides a silver lining to the otherwise gloomy outlook I have had.
I work at an interdenominational school with nearly 1,500 students and over 100 employees. I am a member of the Bible faculty; administratively, I run various programs, head up staff and student projects, provide professional development training and serve as the spiritual director. We have students and staff that span the three branches of Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox), and we have students that have no Christian affiliation. In short, I understand pastoring a diverse crowd of folks, and it was my idea to take our Bible faculty to this conference. I was excited for the opportunity, and excited to have another chance to spend time interacting in a meaningful way over our commonalities as a teaching staff.
The Elephant Room 2 line up consisted of James MacDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel), Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill), T.D. Jakes (The Potter’s House), Jack Graham (Prestonwood Baptist Church), Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), Crawford Loritts (Fellowship Bible Church), and Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Oahu). Now, what you should read in the line up is probably fairly obvious, “Our round table discussion between ‘diverse’ perspectives involves seven pastors – of them, seven are Conservative Evangelical Protestants, two are reformed, two are Pentecostal/Charismatic, and two belong to the SBC.” Now, I traveled in Pentecostal circles long enough to understand that diversity is a rare commodity for organizations that are in the midst of what we might call “institutionalization.” They are trying to secure their brand, guarantee their lineage, solidify their influence, etc. – I get it. Nonetheless, I looked at the lineup and had to reread the website’s “about” page, because I was sure I had missed something. Nope, there it was again, “The Elephant Room features blunt conversations between seven influential pastors who take differing approaches to ministry. No keynotes. No canned messages. These are ‘the conversations you never thought you’d hear.’”
While I know many of our readers will agree with me on this point, there is, apparently, a storm of controversy brewing over how outrageous it was for Macdonald to invite certain pastors to his “blunt conversation.” Many of Driscoll and Macdonald’s colleagues in the Reformed tradition are beside themselves over the interactions with T.D. Jakes (see here, here, here and here). For me, though, the attempt was not daring enough. Why didn’t we get to see ministers like Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Alberto Cutie, Fr. Miguel Diaz, or Rev. Tom Brock mix it up with these elite seven? I don’t mean to be too snarky, but I think the answer is obvious when halfway through the conference T.D. Jakes quipped that pastors needed to “quit being superman, and start being Ms. Lane” (the point being, that sometimes pastors need saving too), Driscoll almost reverted to high school locker room antics, shouting and posturing about how he’s not into “that stuff” (which, perhaps, was only bested by his sage observation that often we put too much focus on the failure of the men when pastors are guilty of sexual sin. He said that we never pay enough attention to the guilt of wives when pastors go outside of the marriage) I was disappointed that the groundbreaking conversation of the day was how to racially integrate congregations, and not how to take the hateful edge out of the militant Evangelical agendas against women and the GLBT community.
It wasn’t all that bad, though. Which, you may not believe, I mean with all sincerity. Something that did emerge, proving to be quite encouraging, was the emotional tone at the close of the conference. Macdonald was quite clear (and most of the others agreed heartily), that he was done with the Evangelical ethos that demands Christians be defined by what they are against instead of what they are for. He reflected on the day, then asked the others to share their gleanings, and the result was a blissful moment of transparency and vulnerability where some of America’s most influential Evangelicals said, “Yeah, you’re right, my church needs to accept all who claim Christ, not just the ones that want to sign my doctrinal statement” (all, except for Monkey-boy, who declared that the day’s conversations amounted to a whole lot more “fun” than he expected he’d have). Some even lamented the fact that the day’s proceedings had not been influenced by an even wider array of Christian leaders.
So, in short, the conference was a little disappointing, because the Evangelical notion of theological diversity is still quite narrow. However, there were great moments where it was obvious that the Spirit of God was driving these leaders to a broader ecumenical vision – that part was really exciting, actually. Consequently, a few parting thoughts on the periphery of my memory: I respect Driscoll less than when I started, I love T.D. Jakes (who knew?), I still can’t believe that Jack Graham opened by saying that the SBC isn’t a denomination, rich white guys that run churches (like the rich white guys that run congress) still have no connection to what the poor, disenfranchised or minorities of America are dealing with on a daily basis, Steven Furtick is my new man-crush (seriously, he is bad ass – I want to be his friend, or watch him cage fight Mark Driscoll), and I see a future where a whole lot of angry little bloggers get a lot of mileage out tired theological fights like “modalism.”