Introductions: My Part of the Emergent Conversation
Recently, I've had a few friends who have expressed their curiosity over my use of the term "emerging" or "emergent church" so often in my writings. I've also been approached by a few colleagues--pastors, for the most part---who have asked me for some pointers on starting an "emergent" worship service at their churches. In both cases, there was a need for a wider explanation about the emergent church conversation that has been taking place for quite some time now, and in both cases I found I had to sit and think a bit before forming an answer.
This is more of my sitting, thinking, I suppose. But maybe there will be some answers in here, too.
Several years ago--almost ten, I guess---I was given a book called "The Continuing Conversion of the Church" by Darell Gruder from Princeton Theological Seminary. That book started me thinking about what it meant for the Church to become more missional than preservationist in its theology and practice. In other words, I began wondering if there was something more for the Church to do in the world other than to "save souls," bark about sin and evil in our culture and worry about dwindling church attendance.
When I was in seminary at McCormick Theological Seminary, I was exposed to a more "liberal" strain of Christianity, and began to reflect theologically on issues that had never been part of my Christian worldview---things like global warming, war, justice, equality for all people, economic issues, hunger, racism, sexism, classism...the list goes on and on. During this period I was also serving as a youth director in a large church just north of Chicago. The community surrounding our church was diverse in every way. I found that my youth group was made up of students of all different races, backgrounds, economic situations, religious affiliations---you name it. Our students included, Catholics, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Agnostics, Atheists and eventually we even added several Jewish students to the mix. Because of my context both at seminary and at my large urban church in Chicago, I was given a window seat, if you will that looked out over the emerging culture. And I could tell that the Church that I had known and was a part of was ill-equipped to relate to it. The old black and white worldview that I had seen the Church hold on to for so long seemed irrelevant and simplistic when it was illuminated by the light of this emerging culture.
I was raised in a conservative, evangelical Christian context that depended on dichotomies---dividing things into "either/or." There were "Saved" and "Unsaved," "Good" and "Evil," "Liberals" and "Conservatives," "Righteous" and "Backslidden," and just about every other kind of dichotomy that you could imagine. But when you started digging around in those dichotomies, you discovered that they really weren't dichotomies at all. For example, in most of the fundamentalist Christian communities that I grew up in, I was encouraged to question my "salvation" if I wasn't "living right." Distinctions were made between which Christians were "real" Christians and which ones were faking it. People in the churches of my childhood would say, "By their fruits ye shall know them," when explaining how one could tell if someone else was a Christian or not. But the problem was, the definition of "fruit" was fairly fluid in these communities and largely depended upon whether the suspected Christian agreed or disagreed with the doctrines of the group.
I also witnessed within the churches of my childhood rampant racism, sexism, classism, neglect of the poor, disdain for the stewardship
of the earth and its resources, hatred for those who believed differently, lack of hospitality to those,
who were less fortunate, greed, an almost thirst for war and conflict, and a host of other things that could easily be described as "unChristian."
There were plenty of good things, too, lest you think I am completely bitter. I also saw people who showed kindness and mercy, and
walked humbly with God, and who resisted the temptation to be triumphant with the grace that
God had showed them. And I saw people who loved the Bible and who taught it well. I am grateful
for my experiences in the churches of my childhood, despite the inconsistencies.
About five years ago, I discovered a book by Brian McLaren called "Generous Orthodoxy." It
was another turning point for me. McLaren's understanding of himself as a paradox of sorts in the
Christian culture spoke to me. His theology was both formed and informed by a variety of learnings
from all sorts of Christian communities---Quakers, Pentecostals, Catholics, Fundamentalists,
Evangelicals, mainline Protestant, etc., etc. I saw my own story in a different light, and began feeling
some peace about the fact that I didn't really have a handle on the answers to my deep and abiding
questions about the Church, my faith, my understanding of God, the universe and everything.
My approach to ministry up to that point had really been grounded in my beliefs about what I now call the "Existing Church."
The Existing Church, in my mind,is an understanding of the Church that is based on the preservation of Christendom. By Christendom
I mean a worldview that is based on the premise that Judeo-Christian beliefs and doctrines make up
the common theological language, if you will, which everyone in our cultural speaks and understands.
The culture that we see emerging into the 21st century doesn't speak that language very well, however, but
the Church refuses to acknowledge this. Some Christian communities just outright refuse to try to engage
those who are part of the emerging culture. They refuse to embrace diversity, become more rigid in their
doctrines, draw lines in the sand over a myriad of "moral" issues, and even make distinctions about what kinds
of politics should be endorsed by Christians. But there are other Christian communities---congregations, churches,
denominations, etc.---who claim to embrace diversity and tolerance, vow to stand for justice, peace and
a more merciful worldview, but then quietly and passively resist change, and reform. In so doing, they
seem as unwelcoming and unwilling to engage the emerging culture as their conservative counterparts.
Most of the churches of my youth seemed to always define themselves by what they would not do, what they did not believe, or who they weren't. They defined themselves in purely negative terms and always in relation to what they viewed as sin. "Define sin," they seemed to say, "and we'll be against it." The only problem is that their view of what was sin was so broad and blurry that it was hard to keep up with them.
I think the Emergent Church will be defined in positive terms...
Emergent churches seem to be characterized by their willingness to actively and productively engage
the emerging culture within which they live and serve. They are more concerned about the kingdom of God
than they are about their own lives. In the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have a line in our Book of
Order that says, "The Church is called to undertake [the mission of demonstrating the kingdom of God] even
at the risk of losing its life." I have found it unfortunate that most of the churches in my denomination
don't really affirm the words that are contained in their constitution. Emergent churches also seem
to be marked by their willingness to be fluid and more present in their communities. Many do not have
buildings they call their own, but meet in homes or community centers. Some have meeting space, but find ways for their buildings to serve their
community in some way when they are not in use. Emergent churches seem to value ecumenical
dialogue and are less concerned with denominations or hard and fast doctrinal beliefs that divide rather
than unite Christians. Emergent churches that are part of larger denominations seem to be working
for reform and unity within those denominations---urging the member churches to pour themselves
out and be used up for the sake of the Gospel. Their ministries are not ministries of self-preservation.
Emergent churches find that it is more useful to be involved in mission in the world than it is to
dwell on differences and disagreements. Emergent churches seek to find common ground with those
who have different beliefs about God, morality, politics, etc.
The fact of the matter is, the church is changing right before our eyes. It has to change, to be honest.
There is a new reformation taking place, quietly and surely. We can welcome it, embrace it, take part in it, or
we can become footnotes in Church History, much like the pre-medieval religious leaders of Galileo's day who
renounced his reformative discoveries as heresy and witchcraft.
The moment that the Existing Church becomes less concerned over its own self-preservation, less worried about
losing its own life----that's when it will find it.