Emergent


To the best of my knowledge, I just made that second word up, and claim dibs on it. But it is on my mind these days as I progress through the dissertation, prepare for and teach my slate of classes, and becoming gradually – though inexorably – more involved in the church we have been attending since September.

In my academic work, I have discovered that I gravitate toward questions of identity and of community formation. Students are beginning to figure out that I can be sidetracked by an innocent question like “what motivated the early Christians to begin to congregate as individual communities?” or “why did the Qumran community feel it was necessary to remove themselves from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness?” But as a Baptist – cum – Anglican, I find myself increasingly suspicious of grand claims of macro-level, galvanizing forces that link big categories and big metanarratives to small communities. In other words, we need to take the Qumran communities as representative only of themselves; we need to look at the ancient church of Lyons or Laodicea or Jerusalem as representative only of their own community. We can’t just assume that they were part of the “big narrative of XYZism or XYZianity.” Whatever major trends were blowing in the wind in first and second century Judaisms and Christianities, what we can be sure of is that individual communities adopted or rejected certain trends on the grounds of whether they were consonant with what these communities believed to be true and that helped foster the particular mission of each.

“Ecclesiography” is my term describing the contemporary movement of “writing about the church,” or perhaps even better, “writing to create the (new) church.” It includes blogging, publishing important new books, distributing scandalous new tracts, and so on and so forth. There is a lot of this going on, particularly by people I count among my friends and acquaintances.  People are eating this stuff up, particularly the ’40 and under’ crowd, as well we should be, because this new “ecclesiographical” writing, intended to inspire a new conception of what it means to “do church” or what it means to “be church” or even “do/be Christian.”  I am all for this, because, as ecclesiographers such as Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, and countless other writers and bloggers (including this one) have said repeatedly, the way we are “doing church” is just not working the way it once did. We need something new.

But we may justifiably ask whether or not ecclesiography is really giving it to us. (For the record: God, I hope so. Lord knows we need it.) Church communities have, throughout their histories, been galvanized by revolutionary, prophetic writing. This obviously includes Scripture, but it also includes other writings as well. It may be too early to tell. But it seems to me that ecclesiography is having strong impact on the personal, individual level, but much less so at the institutional level, either in the local individual parish or at the big denominational or megachurch levels. At the beginning of this decade, evangelical megachurches in the Syracuse area were swarming with memberships and regular attenders. While they still do well relative to the “non-megachurch” contingent, over the last 10 years these big churches have ALL seen dramatic dropoffs in attendance and memberships, in spite of being on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking. Mainline churches have fared a bit better only in that many of them have simply held steady, but there is a high degree of turnover while maintaining more or less the same overall numbers. And fundamentalist churches are in serious decline. Catholic churches are closing their doors and selling off their properties. At all levels, including my own church, parishes are in jeopardy of losing their pastors because they can’t pay them.  Just at the local Syracuse-area level, the numbers are affecting all three of these “big categories,” even though many of them are receptive to the ideas of McLaren, Rollins, Miller, and even me about revolutionizing the way we conceive of being Christian and being the ekklesia of God. I’ve yet to encounter a church of any denomination that is resistant, for example, to the current trend of becoming “missional” or building a “missional” church, a word that entered into the vocabulary of the churches in the late 90s as a result of McLaren’s popularizing of it from Lesslie Newbigin’s use.

But that’s part of the problem. As a result of its popularizing by many of these new gifted ecclesiographers, “missional” has already been denuded. What does it mean? My suspicion is that churches are not using the term in the same way from church to church. My friend the ultrarev, for example, just the other day posted a piece on his blog on the missional church and his desire to plant one somewhere. But they’re already everywhere, and they’re losing members like crazy, because we don’t know what it means! I can imagine Socrates, today, engaging in a dialogue with McLaren over “missional.” As much as I like Brian, I can’t help but feeling that even he, like Meno, would ultimately (good-naturedly, of course) accuse Socrates of being a sting-ray who has numbed his mind and have to recognize that, at the moment, the best we can do with “missional” is identify and describe its attributes better than we can actually define the quality that makes all churches that claim the title as “missional.” My suspicion is that we tend to use “missional” to describe our “ideal church,” meaning quite literally a church that embodies all the qualities that we believe are essential, necessary, good, and “true.”

As I see it, “missional” has become one of those “big categories” that is being coopted and, perhaps, inappropriately applied at a macro-level of Christianity that is itself largely a myth. This happened with “emergent” just recently, and I’m seeing it again here with “missional:” It’s turned into a Movement. This happens when readers of any new work or argument, like that of the Ecclesiographers, take their work and their arguments seriously and see themselves as becoming part of what they represent and attempt, with however limited success, to impart the wisdom of “missional Christianity” to their church community. But what has happened with “missional” is that it is, so far, showing itself to not be radical enough, which means that it can be adopted and coopted by those churches who really have no business employing it. It is becoming a more user-friendly and less-freighted term for “gospel-centered”, which is – or ought to be – synonymous with “evangelical.”  Which is to say that the use of “missional” is to cast into new terms what we have been doing all along…which isn’t working. The consequence of this lack of precise definition and “exacting control of context,” as Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful article “In Distrust of Movements,” is that the term can be preempted even by its enemies. Prepackaged, uncritical, consumerist versions of Christianity are now suddenly “The Biblical Church of our Missional Lord,” offering us what they have always offered, and the Movement fails. (Mr. Berry’s full article can be found in his collection of essays entitled Citizenship Papers.)

I hope that the Missional, Ecclesiographical writers that are now doing so much important work keep doing it and do not get discouraged. But in the meantime, what does this mean for the rest of us, who attend declining, failing churches that are both broken and broke? Simply labeling ourselves as “missional” or “emergent” or “postmodern” or anything else is not going to fix us as long as we identify our primary problems as a single-issue problem that can be addressed by a single-issue solution. What is needed – and what the eccesiographers are giving us! – is a full diagnosis, and enough people with knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes that are unique to the specific needs of each local church. The problem: Where is everyone?

We can read our ecclesiographers until we’re run out of material, and agree with every word they write, but until we actually start doing something and defining as precisely as we can what “missional” means in the context where it is needed or used we are going to continue to slide towards irrelevancy.

The harvest is long, but the laborers few.

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From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

While on my friend Pete’s blog, I stumbled across another blog that really is something else. Good stuff; here’s a sample.

emoticonsLooks like he’s got a new one every day, so now I have something new to check out every morning along with my Daily Dilbert.

Last week, while visiting our old church in New Hampshire, I was handed the church’s monthly newsletter. Like most such newsletters, it opens with a letter from the pastor. The rest of it is announcements, calendar of events and birthdays, and other newsy tidbits; I view these parts as the only parts of it that really have any value, more for keeping up with old friends than anything else. Occasionally I find something in the newsletter that needs comment. (The last time this occurred was the “voting scorecard” back in January that I wrote about here.)  This is another one of those times.

Pastor wrote this:

“As your Pastor, I am concerned with the movement called the Emergent Church. this movement is beginnign to sweep across America and its influences are beginning to seep into Christian colleges, denominations and especially church growth seminars. One idea that they promote is unity and inclusiveness matters more than anything. This is not right! Unity and inclusiveness at the expense of truth, moves you away from God. This kind of thinking is infiltrating our churches and even our denomination. We should never compromise the truth of God’s Word. The Emergent Church is bad news and many of its doctrines are pure heresy.”

He then quotes 2 Timothy to show that his spin on Emergent is actually predicted in the New Testament:

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4.3-4).

Gotta have a prooftext.

Anyhow. I might as well be blunt. Pastor’s commentary here is WAY off-base. But it is not unique; I’m sure that similar comments have been said from pulpit and in church newsletters in conservative, traditional evangelical churches nation/world-wide. And I know for a fact that these types of comments are all over Christian radio, and I actually suspect that this is the ultimate source of Pastor’s information. Certainly if he has read anything from writers or heard anything from speakers who are usually associated with Emergent, these comments could never have been said. Among critics, D. A. Carson and Chuck Colson have been the most vociferous. In this case, Pastor’s comment about Emergent’s “doctrines” verges on the ridiculous; Emergent really doesn’t have any doctrines per se beyond “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Which, as I’ve written in other posts, I think is the absolute “least-common denominator” for Christians of just about every stripe and which is justified more by our actions, behavior, and life than any belief, magic prayer, or doctrinal/credal assent or formulation. The only heresy in the doctrine that “Jesus is Lord” is in the failure to live like you mean it.

The statement that Emergent values unity and inclusiveness more than “the truth” is likewise erroneous. What Emergent recognizes is that the Gospel is to all and for all and that no one is ever excluded from the love and grace of God and Christ. And so what Emergent does is challenge those institutions, structures, and so on within the church and society that make Jesus more “in the way” than “the way.” I actually do not know exactly what Pastor means by “unity” and “inclusiveness” here. Emergent believes that diversity is a strength; we all have different gifts, we all think in different ways, and we all recognize that we bring so much of our own life histories, emotional and psychological experiences, everything in our lives that make us uniquely who we are to the church. This is an inclusive position, of course, consistent with the one “doctrine” I referred to above. Pastor’s accusation of Emergent has nothing to do with Emergent; in fact, it’s really just the old complaint of traditional evangelicalism against more liberal churches. If we don’t understand it, might as well just call it “liberal” and drag out the main complaint evangelicals have had about liberals for 60 years or more.

What Pastor is really concerned about, even though he may not realize it, is that the form of Christianity he represents and cut his teeth on and has spent a lifetime defending – traditional, 1950s style Evangelicalism – is fast disappearing and has little to offer to the 15-30 year old age bracket. And Emergent, with its challenging of structure and institutions and belief systems that are demonstrably un-Christian and un-Biblical but which have been part of institutional Christianity for decades and centuries, has to be one of the scarier things out there. But rather than categorically reject Emergent, we would like to see our evangelical brethren at least extend the hand of friendship to us, who in reality are the next (or more specifically, the fourth) generaion of Evangelicals.