Emergent Christians Mull Theology in Google Era

A group of progressive Christians is urging its cohorts to catch up with today's technology and social media to contribute to theological conversations.

In this Google-shaped world, theological conversations are no longer limited to Ph.D. holders, seminary presidents and church heads, says the group, but they're open to all Christians.

Unfortunately, progressives are way behind their evangelical brethren when it comes to making effective use of new technologies and social networking and making their voices heard, it laments.

Tony Jones, Tripp Fuller and Philip Clayton are among those who are looking to change that through a "revolutionary project to get theology out of the classrooms [and pastors' studies] and into the streets (living rooms, pubs, etc)."

Most recently, they brought some 150 people together to Claremont School of Theology in southern California for a three-day conference on "Theology After Google."

"From now on, you all ... we're the seminary presidents and the deans, and the provosts and the tenured faculty. That's the way it's going. The future of the Christian faith and how we're going to articulate it is going to be in the hands of everybody," said Jones at the start of the March 10-12 event.

"The Ph.D.s from Oxford and Cambridge who used to get to write the encyclopedias have been dethroned," he added, "and now everybody in the world gets to contribute to the largest encyclopedia that's ever been assembled."

During the three-day conference, participants twittered and made Facebook postings as they listened to short talks on Church 2.0, theology 2.0, techies and avatars.

"We've come from a world that has basically set their standards for theology ... and everybody before contributed to you and everybody after you is a threat," said Spencer Burke of TheOoze – which organized the event in partnership with Transforming Theology. "Why can't we say all of these are going to be the contributors to the 'what is yet not now?'"

Jon Irvine, a web designer and also part of TheOoze, paralleled the Web to the Church. He suggested "Church 2.0," where Christians are no longer passive.

"In Web 1.0 there was the Web and everything was getting pushed on you," he noted. "In Web 2.0, you're being pulled in. ... Your opinion matters."

Much like that, Church 1.0 is about top-down leadership, creeds, doctrines and literal objectives church. Church 2.0, on the other hand, is said to encompass a bottom-up, wiki theology, subjective and ever-evolving culture.

"When it comes to technology," Irvine said, "look beyond the hardware and software, and find the image of God within the creativity of man."

The progressive Christians leading the conference have been associated with the emergent church movement, which conservatives have been highly critical of. The conference was labeled by at least one Christian as a "heresy fest."

Ken Silva, a conservative minister who regularly comments on his blog, Apprising Ministries, on what he finds to be apostasy, cautions that "progressive Christianity aka liberal theology will be showing up more and more around the circles of the sinfully ecumenical emerging church aka emergent church."

And the Theology After Google event, he argued, is evidence of that.

Organizers of last week's event were mainly from Transforming Theology, which is a nationwide movement of people who say they are working to transform and renew the Christian Church in and for the twenty-first century.

Clayton, who is leading the movement, says while theology was read, preached and taught by a select few in the Age of Gutenberg, today, "in the Age of Google, theology is what you do when you're responding to blogs, contributing to a wiki doc or google doc, marking up a Word doc on your computer, participating in worship, inventing new forms of 'ministry,' or talking about God with your friends in a pub."

There are no strict criteria for what is acceptable or unacceptable theology, adds Clayton, professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology.

Pastor Bob Cornwall of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Mich., participated in the conference and said he's on board with the movement to a great extent.

But he has some questions.

"In our embrace of democratization are we giving way to a rather undisciplined conversation? That is, should we be more concerned about what the Reformed tradition calls doing things 'decently and in order'? Or, to put it another way, should we be concerned about 'appropriateness' of our conversation?" he posed.

"How democratic should this be, and should we jettison all expertise? I don't think that's the intent, but in our excitement, can this not be the message that gets caught?"

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