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Reflections on USA: Western Seminary


Last month I drove by Western Seminary in Portland Oregon where I studied in 1988 and got my introduction to postmodernism. I also drove by the Horse Brass Pub where I ate lunch every day. The Horse Brass has become quite well known now with Don Miller talking about it so much (Get PDF) but back then it was just an English style pub and a much better alternative to the Seminary's cafeteria. Bob Hyatt (another Western Seminary student) also prefers the Horse Brass. Bob is a leader in the emerging church but doesn't like the term. He prefers "organic church", or so he said at our pizza party in Portland.

Speaking of organic church, one of the teachers who has greatly influenced the house church movement is George Patterson who also teaches at Western Seminary. George yelled at me in the early 90's when he found out I was starting things OTHER than churches. Dang! I like the guy. Despite his grouchy-old-man personna. He let me go through his files which were later published as the Church Multiplication Guide - one of the only resources for house church training in the nineties and much appreciated when we were doing house church in 1997.

Did I start off saying the "P" word?

I hesitate to use the word "postmodern" because the conversation belongs to a different decade, and I hardly ever use the word anymore, but it was 1988 when I became a full time student at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary and so its appropriate to bring it up now. That was my introduction to postmodernism and some concepts that were relevant to my course of studies.

 Tallskinnykiwi Images ChapelIn Cross Cultural Communication, with Dr Donald Smith, we studied communication theory and the anthropology of Paul Hiebert. Hiebert is a professor at TEDS (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) whose book Cultural Anthropology was the main text for our course. Cultural Anthropology is a fascinating subject. It is influenced by the thought of Claude Levi-Strauss who was influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist who laid the foundation for postmodern thought during the 20th Century. Anyway, regardless of the many connections between Saussure and Strauss and Hierbert, we were rightly instructed that communication happens when people hear and understand the gospel, and not when we speak it. Communication is therefore "creating understanding." This was a huge breakthrough for me.

Hiebert had some thoughts on 'bounded sets' and 'centered sets' that also impacted me. And not just me. But over the years, this thinking would impact the entire emerging church. NextReformation have done a good job in laying out this teaching and its connection to emerging church and the teachings of Frost and Hirsch.


Doug Pagitt and I were chatting last month on these models. Doug offered a third alternative - a "networked set" with a more distributed structure. This model has Christ located in his body as well as a distant point and will probably challenge the previous two models of bounded and centered.

A visiting speaker at Western named JP Moreland spoke to us on apologetics. He told us that the leading thinkers of the first century were often the followers of Christ. The challenge was to be the critical philosophical thinkers in today's world. Good challenge. JP has been putting out books on postmodernism. I haven't read any of them yet. I think his understanding of postmodernism is the more the Derridian deconstructionism and epistemological questions of truth rather than the more cultural understanding of postmodernity that i carry. Heck - I might be wrong . .. but I am sure even JP Moreland lives in a postmodern world and goes home each night listening to postmodern music in his postmodern car to a post-modern house with postmodern architecture and styling. My world of modern-colonial missions ended in 1991 and a new world started. I wish there was a better word for it than "post-modern" (meaning AFTER the period of cultural modernity) but I just cant think of one.

Another visiting speaker was researcher George Barna who has recently published a book called Revolution. I helped George get back to the Portland airport that day - nice guy - and I am soooo glad he has finally set his sights on the emerging church.

Lamin Sanneh spoke to us about Africa. I got hooked on the idea of non-western theologians and have made a special effort to find their teachings ever since.

Dr. J. Carl Laney taught Old Testament. His teaching on the book of Job later inspired an article I wrote in 2002 called "Postmodernism and Global Worldviews", part of the Skinny on Postmodernity Series for The Ooze.

Dr Mary Wilder taught History of Missions. We share the same birthday - September 7. But her birthday happened a long time before mine. A long . . long . . time before. Dr Wilder told me where the boyhood home of martyred missionary Jim Elliot was located. Jim used to pray on Mt Tabor, where he lived. I also used to walk up Mt Tabor to pray over Portland. I did that almost every day I was at Western Seminary. There are places on that mountain where i used to pray for the same things each day. It was a labyrinth or prayer path for me. I wanted to walk up and pray there again but didn't have time.

Anyway, back to the subject. Dr Wilder's course was excellent. I was attracted to the monastic movements that made up most of missions history. My evangelical background was biased against anything Catholic, but this course helped me to see the bigger picture of what God had been doing over the last 1500 years.

Dr Gerry Breshears never taught me but my friend Paul Jackson speaks highly of him. Paul pastors Glenwood Community Church where I was on staff for a few years as their Outreach Pastor. Great church!

So Gerry gave a talk recently (hear the MP3) where he gave a critical view of the emerging church. Although he spent all his time critiquing Brian McLaren's book "A New Kind of Christian" which he believes is the "systematic theology of Emergent". I think if Dr Breshears knew how many Western Seminary students are starting and leading emerging churches around the world, then he might give a bit more space in his definition and critique of Emerging Church. Same for D.A. Carson (from TEDS - same seminary as Hiebert) whose students seem to do quite well leading emerging churches.

Multnomah Bible School is down the road from Western. I also studied there. They were behind some incredible initiatives for Portland such as a strategic project called Mission Portland and an ecumenical prayer movement among pastors and ministry leaders. Western Seminary was too stodgy to do such things back in the late 80's when i was there. But things have changed. I have heard on the grapevine that Multnomah has stopped supporting these missional projects in favor of focusing on their academic credentials. And Western have picked up what Multnomah has dropped.

If thats true, I would bet that Western Seminary will be a better environment to study than Multnomah. And if Western keeps attracting emerging church leaders, then it might become one of the best places to study in USA. Lets wait and see.