Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Two AM, thinking of "gardens" and "parks"

Thanks to a surprise Christmas gift from my friends Fred & Jane Green, I've been able to take a mini-vacation from austere living to purchase a couple of long-lusted-after books about "emerging culture" and "emergent churches." (Sad-but-true: you can always spot an intellectual by the kind of books he buys himself as Christmas presents...)

The first book to arrive was The Church in Emerging Culture, edited by Leonard Sweet. In the last two days, I've been busy enough that I've barely made it through the introduction to the book, a mini-epic by Leonard Sweet himself. But what I've read so far has literally been worth the price of the book, by itself.

What Leonard Sweet wrote about addressed a long-standing set of hurts in my past. In 1997-2000, I was part of a congregational schism - a Lutheran church that literally exploded apart, deeply wounding people on both sides of the split and scattering members of the 50-year-old suburban congregation to the four winds. I've spent nearly 5 years (on & off) trying to understand just what the hell happened in those times. I've studied this for two reasons: first, to avoid encountering that kind of pain again; but also to identify what kinds of forces were at work at the time, and recognize how to deal with them in the future.

I've tried hard to avoid the whole "it was just 'the worship wars'" nonsense, which was the ralling cry of "Milord Pastor," a.k.a "He Who Must Not Be Named" (can you say "Lutherans for Voldemort"?) I've also struggled to separate the "he-said, she-said, they-said" foolishness from the truth of what was going on (at least, the truth as I can perceive it, from this distance). Sweet's introduction gave me the first real framework to address the troubles of those times...the understanding that his words brought me was like a cool, healing rain on my soul. So here I am at 2 AM, trying to summarize this incredibly rich imagery so it makes sense. (Perhaps the insanity here is that 2 AM is not the best time, at any rate, to be attempting to make sense...oh, well...)

The four images in Sweet's model are based on how the church decides to act with regard to what he calls changing the message, and changing the methods for delivering that message. He described the four categories as "gardens," "parks," "glens" and "meadows." The way he describes the congregational variations, and how they each act, really rang true with me - and spoke volumes to the troubled history of my first congregational "home." (What follows is a summary of pages 18-29 of Sweet's essay, to avoid endless footnoting.)

Sweet describes a garden as a place apart, transformed from the local indigenous growth to be a special place of beauty. So he describes "garden" churches as folks who look to preserve what has been planted - both the message and the method of transmitting that message. "The Pastor Who Must Not Be Named" referred to this, time after time, as "the eternal truths of the historic church and faith" and "the ancient liturgies and traditions of 'The Church'" (always spoken-of in all-capitals).

In his model, Leonard Sweet suggests that the goal of the gardener is preservation of what he has worked so hard to plant and establish. So the "garden" church weeds out anything that is not part of "the historic faith", and decries that which is popular in favor of that which is ancient (and therefore "true"). "Garden" churches are often closed systems, gated or walled-off areas for keeping the new and the modern out, in favor of "that which came from our fathers." The action of faith is in preserving "what is" and "what has been done", often at the expense of moving towards "what should be". Slugs, snails, and rogue versions of variegated flowers are rooted out and destroyed, to protect the varieties already in the garden from corruption. "Identity" (who we are, where we come from) becomes much more important than "identification" (with whom do we "fit in," or who might we engage in the world around us).

In contrast, the "park" is a place for walking, for visiting. Where the garden may have walls and stone barriers to keep flowers in (and weeds and trespassers out), the park has pathways to facilitate visiting, exploring, and discovery. The "park" churches praise the apostle Paul for participating in three cultures (Sweet quotes E. M. Blaiklock describing Paul as "the rabbi of Jerusalem, the Greek of Tarsus, the citizen of Rome"). "Park" churches adopt "Mozart or Manilow or Madonna" and use them all, somehow, for the glory of God. Sweet quotes the slogan of Calvin College: "We're looking for 1,000 ways to express a 2,000-year-old tradition." If the "garden" is "a rock for truth that is changeless," the "park" is "a river of life that is ever-flowing - making things fresh, cutting new beds, finding new ways."

As I see it in retrospect, in my first congregation I was part of a group of people who longed to live in a "park" church - and yet we found ourselves in a church filled with people who were in love with their very-traditional "garden." Several of us kept wanting to make the garden into a park...thereby really annoying the loyal gardeners who had built up that garden in their own way for so long. They couldn't understand how we could not want what they wanted for their garden; we couldn't understand how they couldn't want to encounter the beauties inherent in the parks we sought. And it seemed to each group that what the other group was doing was a violation of faith and integrity.

So when a number of us finally left the "garden," looking for more open and dynamic pastures in which to labor, I know it seemed like betrayal for those who stayed behind...and it certainly felt like indifferent rejection to those of us who left. None of us could see, at the time, that what we were seeking was two entirely different understandings of what it meant to be "the church." Neither of us would be happy in the others' world - but the separation nonetheless felt very amputational.

The evidence that separating was the right thing to do came as each person left our "garden" church home, and subsequently found healing, new activity, new enthusiasm, and a renewed sense of calling in their new congregational homes - even though many of the families that departed left not only the congregation, but their historic family denomination as well. It stopped being about a tradition or a denomination, and became a fundamental shift in the way we understood what it meant to be "The Church." In retrospect, I'm amazed that we lasted as long as we did...and I'm also very glad that we aren't still there, making everyone miserable by trying to make them something they didn't want to be.

Reading this typology of churches helped me see that though it did feel like evil when we were going through it, God meant it for good in the end...much like the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. And it's proof again of the value of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." May all God's people say, "Amen..."

A slightly funny aside: The second eagerly-awaited package I received was addressed to me, but actually contained someone else's order. I opened the box with haste and excitement, but was disappointed to find "my" box with a whole bunch of strange books inside it...including a copy of XXX: Thirty Porn-Star Portraits. (Fortunately for my tattered virtue, that particular volume was shrink-wrapped to avoid prying eyes...)

So that box goes back to Amazon, and I trust that the Amazon machinery has sent me what I really wanted: the book with the great title, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN, by Brian McLaren (a prophetic voice in the "emergent church" movement). I've heard so much about this one - I'm sorry it's taken me this long to get on the bandwagon!

(Alas, my copy of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where We Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage by Dave Burchett will have to wait for a least until after I read the two Henri Nouwen books that Natalie got me for Christmas...)

Perhaps you too, found some understanding and truth in this imagery. Personally, I can't wait to hear what the rest of the books will offer...I promise more to come!


Poor Mad Peter said...

Our church is at a crossroads of sorts, one brought on by our architecture (the old story of badly designed, difficult-to-work-around, falling apart in places), by our finances, and by our small numbers. Despite our amzingly strong community, these are real challenges, and we will be visioning to look at what we need to do and how and when to be a living church in our city.

I see some echoes of Leonard Sweet's ideas in our congregation as we head into visioning--though we are a young congregation (not even 60 years in existence) with a much more contemporary building design (well, 1961?), there are those who are clearly the gardeners and those who are the park people, and a bunch of mindsets in between.

Your sharings of Sweet are helpful to me as part of the visioning committee, Steve. I hold the fond notion that somehow both can be accomodated in one building--in a sense, we've already done that for decades--but I also see the caution in Sweet's ideas that such a community is a constant challenge to maintain and nurture.

Thanks for this.

Levi said...

I really appreciated that description you quoted from Sweet. I definitely like a 'park' Christian in a 'garden' church. Some day I might go out wandering around the neighborhood.
It's good to know that there doesn't have to be anything 'wrong' with either way of being/doing church.

Captainwow said...

yes yes good stuff.... Thanks for sharing the imagery. I've also lived through some splits "in my day". They aren't usually pretty. Sometimes the "garden" or "park" that folks were trying to preserve wasn't even alive anymore but they (we?) stubbornly fussed and raked and hoed blindly anyway. So sad. But good to look at in different ways.

Rick said...

the other book you're waiting for is really good, and will probably go far in helping define some things like the len sweet book has done - i wrote a review on my site ( and i'm still challenged and chewed up by the insights of both of those guys.

thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Shirley Guthrie's less poetic treatise, using potentially accusatory labels, may be found at

Trancendence arrives, whether we look at parks or gardens, when we realize the strengths and weakenesses in our faith. I'm always amazed at Alan Watts, Buddha guru of late 60's San Francisco, railing against Vatican II.

What? Good people in those days were liberals! Yet Watts understood the purpose of ritual in creating an atmosphere for reverent fellowhsip. By interjecting content into services, something was being lost.

It sounds as though "garden" Christians are of the pietistic variety. Maybe we can't decide whether Vatican II was a good idea or not, unless of course it's revealed to us personally.

- Wes

Naomi said...

thanks for your comments on my blog. i really loved this statement, "compassion trumps theology everytime." it's a great reminder.
your blog friend