October 25, 2007

So What Is This "Emergent Church"?

I mean, I'm drawn to it. The idea of new, "cutting-edge" church philosophy that incorporates a lot of freedoms that I love is obviously going to make me get a little excited. But the more I read and explore, the more hesitant I become, and I'm trying to understand why.

If you haven't yet heard of the "emerging church", Wikipedia is your friend. The opening line of the entry describes it as "a controversial 21st-century Protestant Christian movement whose participants seek and to engage postmodern people..." (Yes that's right, they seek and to engage. Nothing lends credibility like bad grammar.) Despite its obvious flaws, I like Wikipedia because I think it gives a pretty good description of how something is actually seen or experienced by a majority of people. And this mysterious "majority of people" seem to think that the emerging church is "controversial".

If we are going to be completely honest with each other, I probably have to mention to you that this perceived controversy is at least half of the reason that the whole Emergent/Emerging movement (again, see Wikipedia for the ridiculously unclear difference) is gaining so much publicity. It's sort of like the kid who yelled "fight" in the halls of your high school -- some people were rolling their eyes and some people were cheering them on but everybody ran to watch. But this fight isn't between a jock and a punk in the halls of a high school, and there's probably a little more at stake. Regardless of who's right or wrong, are the unsuperficial parts of this fight good or bad for Christianity or humanity as a whole?

Here's why I think it's a Good Thing:

  1. Freedom to explore and ask questions. The church is too good at squashing questions and questioners, as if its goal is to raise up an army of unthinking servants who recite their memorized lines in unison. Abortion is murder, protect the family, sexual sin is the worst kind of sin, Max Lucado is a great author, Josh McDowell used to be an athiest but look what happened when he tried to disprove the Bible, love the sinner hate the sin, etc. I grew up in the Church and I know this is not the real goal of most church people. So I think it's a Good Thing to stop making it seem like it is.
  2. Epistemological humility and the freedom to not know. Epistemological humility is just a fancy way of saying "uhh... we don't actually know everything." Growing up, I remember getting in numerous theological debates (I had a very boring childhood, you might say). It never once occurred to me that the appropriate answer to any number of theological questions is "I don't know." To answer that way would have been worse than admitting defeat, bringing shame upon my children and their children for generations to come. And yet, there are so many things we don't know or understand. I think it's great to admit that.
  3. Openness to new understandings. The concepts of infallibility and inerrancy have probably gained too much weight as Foundational Pillars of the entire Christian Faith, especially when the concepts seem to be misunderstood so often. What we have is our own interpretations and the interpretations of those we trust. When we ask questions and admit that we don't know all the answers, we begin to realize that some of our theological understandings may be built on misguided logic or unfounded assumptions. I think Jesus taught in parables as a way to get his audiences to engage with what he taught them, to talk it out and grapple with it on a personal level and with each other. When we seal off all theological interpretations as final, binding, and untouchable, I think we do damage to the spirit in which they were presented by Jesus himself.
  4. Emphasis on love and mercy. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. I like when groups begin to focus on how to better love each other, not just within the Church but all people everywhere. Sometimes it seems as though so many years were spent on preaching justice, wrath, and how to avoid sin that we may have missed out on some of the stories of redemption and healing that God meant for us to emphasize to the world. The harshest of Jesus' condemnations were saved for those who thought themselves righteous members of the church, while his softest and most loving conversations were with the lowest of sinners. To follow his example is, I think, to preach his message of love and grace and leave judgment to God.
But, like I said, I've become uneasy with it. Here's why I think it might be a Bad Thing:
  1. Elitism. Trading one kind for another is the worst kind of trick. I would hate to become so concerned with being a part of this "emergent" group that I entirely missed the point. Already people have begun to parody members of the movement as looking a certain way, using certain buzz words, and espousing certain trademark idiosyncrasies. And it's easy to begin associating all of this branding with an intellectual snobbery that says, "We're smarter and cooler and trendier, so why don't those idiots understand how awesome we are and join us?"
  2. Useless controversy. I think parts of the "fight" are good and necessary, but I think a lot of others are just for the sake of drama and publicity. Nothing gets more hits for your blog than saying something with a little bite to it, right? Conversations that are filled with grace will go a lot further toward making this a meaningful and productive discussion, but they aren't as exciting. People like it when their blood boils a little bit.
  3. It's a phase/fad/temporary excitement. It feels more exciting now to say, "There's a whole new church rising up and it's going to be completely different and it's going to change the way we think about everything, and it's emerging with a new postmodern worldview as we leave the modern era behind!" But really, we're going to move along just as slowly as we always have, and ten or twenty years from now our kids are going to say, "What's this 'emergent church' thing that you guys used to talk about?" or, "Haha remember when people thought the 'emergent church' was the big thing? That was so lame. They didn't realize that it's actually the Post-Re-Emergent Post-Community Gathering Conversation that is the real new movement, and this one's going to last..."
  4. Reactionary decisions. So much of the movement is made up of people who have had poor experiences with previous Evangelical churches. This is bad for two reasons -- people who are bitter about past experiences tend to use harsh, negative language when referring back to those groups, and decisions based on this kind of reactionary movement tend to be less thought out since they are partly based on anger.
Here's what I think: This movement is an indicator. A lot of people in our generation (some older, some younger) are beginning to think differently about some things, and some changes are going to grow out of it. But do we need another New Church? History tells us that New Churches become mirror images of their parent churches as the first generation grows up. Why shouldn't we learn from our parents' churches (and their parents' churches) as we try to incorporate these new ideas and interpretations into our faith?

Perhaps the best church to emerge from these conversations will emerge within the churches that we already belong to, as we try to work to redeem the broken relationships we have within them. Or maybe the freedom of new ideas will never catch on within the established churches and the movement will be forced to find new homes as it has already begun to do. It's probably too early to tell. But no matter what happens, I think any of us who sympathize with the good sides of this movement would do well to follow Mark Van Steenwyk’s “7 Loving Challenges for Emergent,” which are summarized here on the Emergent Village blog. If this topic interests you, that blog is a good place to watch.

1 comment:

Makeesha said...

I think if you were to participate in the conversation (maybe find a local cohort or read WITHIN the emerging church movement) instead of reading ABOUT it you will find that many of the concerns are based on charicatures (charicatures are of course based on something real but aren't realistic representations).

I recently wrote a series of reflections about the Emergent Gathering in New Mexico that my family attended. It might interest you.

There's really nothing being sold so there's nothing to buy into so I just encourage you to start conversing with us instead of trying to figure it out so that you can decide whether or not to endorse it. I think that's a big misunderstanding amongst a lot of folks - that there's a list of "things" that are "emerging" that you can either say yay or nay to and if you have too many nay's you're "out"...it's just not like that.

anyway, just thought I'd chime in, as an "emerging" person. (by the by, I have an "emergent" watch through google with his how I found your post)