United Methodist Emergent-cy

“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 feeding2scratching 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.

HomeBibleStudySecond, 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.

Working%20with%20mudSeventh, 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!).

23 replies

  1. As one of the people interviewed for the article Dan critiques, let me offer a few words of response.

    First off, I don’t think there is such a thing as “the emerging missional church.” An animal with the coherence to be a “church” as such doesn’t exist. What I talk about and write about is “the emerging missional way.”

    I never separate those two words– emerging and missional. This follows the usage set out by Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs in their work on this topic as a whole, and places the emphasis on the second item– missional– over the first — emerging.

    There is intentionality in that. “Emergent” is a term that refers more specifically to the work that has been led and somewhat coordinated through Emergent Village, which is a particular organization. The work they have been part of has been primarily a critique of North American Reformed Evangelical theology and praxis, and at the same time the reconstruction (to some degree) of what “mission” looks like for postmodern contexts. Emergent/Emergent Village, thus, has been more focused on one fairly narrow range of missional theology, ecclesiology and praxis. Put another way, one might say their focus has been more on the “emerging” side of the pair “emerging missional” and on “missional” only in a limited context. I would also agree that its leadership has been profoundly anti-institutional and anti-denominational. I see that, ultimately, as problematic or at least unnecessarily limiting for them and those who share those beliefs.

    And until the unveiling of Christianity21, an upcoming conference featuring the voices primarily of women across ethnic and class backgrounds, Emergent/Emergent Village has been very largely a white, male, middle or upper middle class dominated movement. I think Christianity21 marks a real sea-change– or at least a point of awareness there– that real change is needed to realize a larger vision, including one that directly connects with the poor and women on a more hands-on basis. It’s not that this hasn’t been happening– but the voices who have been speaking in the past certainly haven’t represented how it’s been happening as well as they might have.

    For Ryan Bolger, Alan Roxburgh, Darryl Guder, Alan Hirsch and others who have been describing the larger emerging missional phenomenon, with the emphasis on missional, however, the limitations taken on by Emergent/Emergent Village do not apply. They’re going back to the sources (the Bible of course, and more recently the missiological work of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch) and reconstruing church as being primarily about being sent– living in and into God’s mission announced, embodied, and set loose on the world in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is Orthodox Trinitarianism to the core.

    When I and Paul Chilcote and others look at what the Wesleys were doing in the 18th century, what we see is a throughgoing missional ecclesiology in practice. The class meetings and Methodist Societies were not about “getting people in” to worship services and calling that good, but precisely about forming and sending disciples of Jesus into God’s mission with the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick. the hungry, and prisoners. That “going out” then definitely included evangelism, but was not limited to that. This was the heart of General Rule 2. If you weren’t living this out, you were likely called out on it and if you didn’t make serious progress to get going, you could be removed from the Methodist Society. It is not romanticizing early Methodism to say that Wesley was spending a large amount of his time in the second half of his years of active ministry removing members from Methodist Societies. His journals witness to that. His many admonitory letters to people asking for spiritual help but not actually working on living the practices commended by the General Rules do as well.

    Does the going out include evangelism in the larger emerging missional way? Yes, it does and it can do so better. I’ve written about that on the emergingumc blog here:

    Does it include orthodoxy? Actually, yes it does– when tied to its roots and our own at Methodists.

    Does it include hierarchy? Not necessarily. Hierarchy was a structure model that was known to be highly effective in 18th century England for some things. Another model that we have clearly discovered in the 21st century is accountable networking– indeed, that is the basis for all of the effective open source software development currently occurring, and generally speaking, there’s wide agreement that Firefox (an open source project) tends to trump the more hierarchally and proprietarily produced Internet Explorer in every way. IE keeps losing market share to Firefox, month by month. The point– accountable networking can produce at least as good, if not better results, than hierarchy. A further point– the term Wesley used to describe the relationships within the structures of Methodism and between Methodism and the various existing churches was not hierarchy, but “connexion”– the synonym for which today would be… networking.

    Does it include discipline and accountability. If the Wesleys had anything to teach us, we know it must. We also know that accountability that leads to transformation doesn’t happen in larger groups, such as congregations or even Societies. It has to occur in authentic small groups committed to the way of Jesus and to help each other live that.

    Does it reject institutions? No. Not at all. It is true that those who identify with postmodernism as their primary context often tend to do so. But that does not mean their rejection of institutions is an immutable characteristic of the emerging missional way as such. Indeed, it puts those folks at serious odds with the third General Rule, which specifically commits Methodists to participating in BOTH the institutional church of the day AND the structures of the Methodist movement. It is those structures that those of us in “emerging missional Methodism” are seeking to rebuild, along with the reality of healthy networked relationships between these structures and existing “institutional” ones.

    Is early Methodism a one-on-one match for Emergent/Emergent Village today? No. Is it a one-on-one match for the emerging missional way? No– but it was an instance of that way, in that it took seriously the context for ministry in its day (the whole of England and North America, not just one class or race or another), and so could be called “emerging” (culturally responsive) and it focused on sending people in mission to join what it understood God was doing in those very contexts, recognizing the level of deep commitment to God and each other that required and structuring themselves to support that level of commitment accordingly, and so could be called “missional.”

    I think our contention as emerging missional Methodists would be no different from that of the Wesleys in the 18th century or “The Methodist Way” document compiled by Randy Maddox and presented to the Extended Cabinet gathering at Junaluska a few years ago. Namely, what we see is that the United Methodist Church as currently configured in North America, in particular the spiritual conditions and capacity of its congregations, is not in a significantly different place than was the Church of England in the 18th century. What is needed to address that is nothing less than a reclamation of the “doctrine, spirit and discipline” with which we started out at first. Wesley’s strategy for achieving that wasn’t to plant new congregations– it was to start groups for people who were ready, or were willing to become ready, to be what the current emerging missional way would call “disciples and missionaries to their culture” in his day. That is part of what we are proposing to do as well.

    This isn’t an insurgency. An insurgency implies that one is trying to take over the existing structures or at least topple them. It also isn’t schism– an attempt to separate ourselves fully from the existing structures as if we do not need them. It is instead the creation of complementary communities of Christians who will be both disciplined in these paracongregational communities and fully present and active in their existing congregational communities. It is to reform the nation, and particularly the church, by being reformed ourselves, living the Methodist/Christian way, and seeing what emerges as we seek to do so faithfully. This isn’t para-church– but rather a different format or formats of Christian community, and so fully “in ecclesia” and accountable to though not necessarily controlled by the existing institutional forms of Christian community.

    Some of us have found ways to do some of this work inside congregations– especially in new church starts where the DNA of the congregation has not been pre-set to be primarily “attractional” rather than “missional.” For most of us, though, I would say, the effort involves being part of extra-congregational efforts that complement rather than compete with congregational attempts to evangelize, make disciples of Jesus Christ, and be part of sending them actively into God’s mission to transform the world through him.

    That’s the vision that was articulated at the first emergingumc gathering in Nashville in 2007. The upcoming gathering, emergingumc2: restoring missional methodism, (November 12-14, Lockerbie Central UMC, Indianapolis) is all about making those disciplined commitments toward next steps or stronger steps in these directions.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • I tend to like the “missional church” focus — it is calling us to get back out into the world instead of happily isolating ourselves as the great redeemed and protected favored of God, and I am glad you link the two together. My desire is that we could spend more time reflecting on the dozens of times we have made the same “discoveries” in the past, and maybe — this time — we could move to a place where we wouldn’t have to do this all again in 2038.

  2. Great post and some great thoughts here about emergent Methodism. I find it interesting you use the term “movement” throughout your post. However, at no point do you refer to the fact that Methodism was never intended to be a denomination. Instead, Wesley never wanted Methodism to become a denomination. He saw the “movement” as a way to revitalize what was a lukewarm and in some cases a dead denomination in which he found himself in.

    For Methodists who want to discover the roots of Methodism, one needs to no further than one of Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons – The Character of a Methodist – To quote Wesley, “Oh how I wish we had never been called Methodists.”

    • Thanks, Rus, the reason we think this is similar to early Methodism is fairly clear evidence that we don’t have a clue what early Methodism was actually like. Yuck, history — it’s so OLD. Movements come and movements go. One day writers will reflect on what is happening in the church as resembling the “emergent movement” way back in the dark ages of the early 21st century.

  3. this post is helping to articulate some of the head scratching moments I have as I read Hirsch et al in the Emerging movement. I am deeply committed to the UMC, so not quite ready to blow up the buildings or jettison the structures…but I am attracted to the deeper relationships and relationship building that comes from living in the emergent way. ok, so maybe it is the edginess or counter cultural-ness that is so attractive. but then again, isn’t radical hospitality and missional living what Jesus called us to do as the Body of Christ? I fear we have a tendency to want to support the buildings and structures at the expense of being the Church…sigh…

    thanks for engaging us in the conversation!

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