“Are you emerging?” the young pastor asked as he shook my hand. He has been reading my blog, and simply had to know. At first I looked down to see if I had come untucked, then I realized what he was asking (a variation on “are you emergent?”). I never know how to answer this question. it has become a label without a referent. What “emerging” meant and what it means are two different things (same with “emergent”). The heart of what we refer to as the emerging/emergent church was first co-opted by the independent evangelical churches, then totally usurped by the mainline churches (a total contradiction — can anyone say, “oxymoron?”). I read the article in The United Methodist Reporter the other day, and it left me scratching my head. I cannot figure out how some of our most intelligent thinkers in the church see the emerging/emergent church as a modern-day Methodist movement. Missional, yes, but evangelical? Only for the later independent and mainline churches that undermined the original intention. The Methodist movement went to the streets, extending a fairly strict orthodoxy on an unsuspecting world. Not so, emerging church. The Methodist movement aimed at the lower classes — the workers, blue collar and otherwise, with little advanced education — preaching in the open air, in fields, at mines, on street corners. Emergent? Primarily the privileged classes with above average income and education (with some exceptions). Methodist movement governed by rules, regulations, and protocols. Emerging/emergent… not so much. Methodist movement ruled by a hierarchy; uhm, not so’s you’d notice in the emerging church. Context is hugely different. Sources and backgrounds, very different. Focus, fundamentally different. Energy — okay, energy and passion pretty close (but you can say the same of American Idol).
The truly emerging/emergent groups I have visited and studied have some common elements that fly in the face of much of the written literature — the McLaren and Bell and Miller, etc., stuff that assimilated emerging/emergent into the same old, same old. They much more closely resemble the first generation emergent groups in Australia and the U.S. northwest. First, they are anti-institutional. They don’t want rules, they don’t care about organization for the long term — they tend to be grass-roots mini-movements where people who share beliefs, dreams, a passion or two, and a deep desire to integrate their faith into their daily life. They aren’t looking for someone to “do” faith for them — they are happy learning and doing it on their own.
Second, contrary to the lazy, sloppy pretenders to emergent spirituality, participants want to understand, deeply and truly understand, what the Bible says, what the Bible means, and what we are supposed to do about it. They care what the original authors wrote (they don’t want watered down paraphrases, nor do they want to pool their ignorance) and they work hard to understand — using commentaries and other tools. They don’t want to read books of theological bias — they like original sources. And not only Christian original sources. The quest for truth, meaning, and relevancy doesn’t begin and end with the Holy Bible. Many emergents are seeking wisdom wherever it can be found — Kabbalah, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc. I have been deeply impressed by the Biblical and spiritual knowledge of Christians outside the institutional church.
Third, church is relationship. It is talking to each other, listening to each other, praying with each other, working with each other, learning together, making meaning together — and from this common connection, they worship together. Certainly, they don’t have a sacramental foundation to their faith, nor do they have pastors. They take authority to seek answers to the questions they cannot answer themselves.
Fourth, time and place is flexible. Church actually happens when two or three get together (what a concept…). It happens at the coffee shop, the golf course, at the restaurant after work, on the service project — any time, any place. A regular aspect of their shared experience is to plan to do things together that build their faith.
Fifth, people come and people go. Virtually no one stays for long. Emergent groups don’t position themselves to survive — they live in the moment and make the most of whatever time they have. One of the most “emergent” people I know is a guy named Doug who has been part of fifteen different conglomerations of Christians — moving in, out, back, forth, and anywhere the Spirit leads. This is a young man who prays three hours a day, fasts once a week, works four noontimes at a soup kitchen, attends classes in Greek and New Testament at a seminary, and has launched two successful software companies — the proceeds from which he funds a variety of Christian relief projects. With the exception of two weddings, a baptism and a funeral, Doug has never been to church.
Sixth, leadership is truly shared. Emergent churches are characterized by a flat org. chart. Nobody is in charge, everybody is in charge. The teamwork can be phenomenal — a true thing of beauty. We talk a lot about inclusiveness, diversity, shared leadership, equality, etc., but these informal spiritual “churches” that crop up could really show us a thing or two.
Seventh, those we label “emergent” aren’t interested in us. They aren’t seeking to be like us, be with us, and they certainly don’t want to be us. They resent being viewed as a “mission field,” the “unchurched,” “the great unwashed,” “the future!!,” or the next meal of evangelistic vampires looking to pick up a few wayward proto-Christians. If we have to apply labels to them, they prefer “Christian.”
So, these are some of the reasons I find it hard to answer the question, “are you emergent/emerging?” I resonate with the core of the concept, but what the independent and mainline churches have done with it is a crime. There is no such thing as an emergent mainline church (any more than there is light black or lukewarm frozen). Yes, we have learned a thing or two from the truly emergent, and we have usurped and assimilated some of the better ideas, but we are not emergent.
It’s kind of fun to pretend we are, though. It feels counter-cultural and edgy — both fun things to play at when we have absolutely nothing to lose. However, I have yet to find a church in our system that is comfortable talking over the theological challenges of The Sopranos, who pray using terms like mother-f***** (see, I can’t even write it out…), who have hookers and meth-heads teaching their Bible studies, or up and move to another part of the country to be able to live among the poor. This is what real emergent churches look and sound like. Most of us just engage in theater.
The other thing that bothers me is that people see this as somehow monumental or new. To me, the emergent/emerging movement looks less like early Methodism and more like the Jesus People of the sixties and the New Age movement of the eighties and nineties. Counter-cultural movements are not exceptional, but normal. The current missional church movement is great — the newest spin of a recurrent cycle that propels us back out to be Christ’s servants in the world. If you think this is new, look up Walter Rauschenbusch or Dorothy Day.
Good things are happening in the church under the various labels — emerging, emergent, missional, and even attractional (?) — but let’s be honest. None of these things are new, and while they will be a part of our future, they are not our future. They are popular handles for the current manifestation of what we have seen a few hundred times before and will see frequently in the future.
Whenever I share stories of what I believe is truly “emergent,” the question that often follows is, “Well, how do we get these people to come to church?” That’s the wrong question — one only the evangelical and mainline churches bother to ask. These people are not our competition, they are not our potential customers, and they are not “the unchurched.” They are our brothers and sisters, and we have much to learn from them. The only way we can learn is to keep quiet, and find creative ways to work with them, walk with them, and become one with them in the body of Christ. The most important thing there is to learn, however, is that they don’t need us nearly as much as we need them (and I don’t mean to join our church!).