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. I am of the opinion that the Methodist Church was, at one time, the penultimate emergent church. Of course, two hundred years ago, that was not what it was called. What I see happening and what I am reading tells me that it is no longer emerging. The problem is that we have forgotten what our roots as Methodists and as Christians are and are locked into a mindset of a rigid structure.

    It isn’t that we need to be reminded of what we were but what we can be and what the people we serve and can serve need.

    • Tony, one of my common sayings is that our future does not lie in our past. We are working off of an incredible foundation, and there are many principles that are universal and eternal, but what we used to be isn’t what we need to be now.

      • “What we used to be isn’t what we need to be now…”

        I’d agree with that as a general caveat against “golden age” thinking. “Golden age” approaches– that things would be “right” again if we just did things exactly as they were at X time– are generally historically faulty (to say the least) and lead more to wishful thinking and frustration than to fruitful outcomes.

        But I would actually disagree with that as a hard and fast rule. There really are some things from the past that have gone into dis-use that might be re-used helpfully now under similar (not identical) conditions.

        Case in point… systems theory (not an 18th century idea, from what I can see) affirms that systems can be changed when either some part of them changes or the environment around them (the playing field, as it were) changes.

        The system called the Church of England was not likely to be changed from within in the 18th century– at least not toward the ends of helping more people experience “holiness of heart and life.” It simply had too many years of systemic inertia that didn’t include that as a significant priority for it to be realistic to think that attempts to change it from within could get anywhere in any one person’s lifetime.

        So what could change? The environment around it rather than directly inside it– the playing field. That’s what made early Methodism a game changer– it fundamentally altered the playing field on which congregations were playing by creating systems outside of those congregations that were dramatically impacting the lives of the people inside them as well as those outside them (but who, via Methodism, would also get linked inside them as well).

        Did the Wesley’s think about this insight from systems theory when they set up the Methodist societies? That doesn’t appear likely. But what they did do– by going paracongregational while also insisting that those in the movement have a regular connection with a congregation of some sort– did have exactly that sort of outcome that systems theory would predict.

        So now, today, we actually have two good reasons to attempt a similar kind of project– the witness of history (including what happened with the “outsider” status of these groups was morphed into its own insider status) plus the descriptive power of systems theory for all sorts of systems.

        So… if “what we used to be isn’t what we need to be now” means “avoid romanticizing the past”– I agree.

        But if it means, “Don’t take up what worked before and seems to have a reasonable chance to do so again now, just because now isn’t then”– not so much.

        Peace in Christ,

        Taylor Burton-Edwards

  2. I really enjoyed this post and wish I had something enlightening to say right off the top of my head. I got to be a part of a small worship experience that came and went and was amazing for about a year in Nashville at West End UMC. It was organized all by young adults, we wrote prayers, we wrote songs, we created fellowship through our planning meetings every week at the local starbucks, where we did a lot more counseling/fellowship/praying than we did “planning.” Worship felt like a family gathered around the living room to praise God and go deeper in our faith. We learned from one another and no one was really in charge. And it all came out of a very institutional congregation – and to be honest – from people who are very high church United Methodists.

    I really agreed with the part of your post about how emerging/emergent ministry/worship is not focused on survival. This came kind of unexpectedly out of a totally different purpose, and it served its time and then it went and we were sad to see it go, but excited for the next thing to come. That is the kind of spirit that we actually really do need to see within our more “mainline” congregations – the willingness to go where the Spirit moves us, try things out, let them live as God blesses them, but stop getting our panties in a wad when their time is up.

    • The ability to live in the moment, seize the opprotunities as they come, enjoy them to the fullest, then let them go is a quality our church could stand to cultivate. Great things happen within our established churches — God is that powerful — but truly amazing things are happening without any help from organized religion at all. Ain’t it great?

  3. Dan, are you familiar with Diana Butler Bass’ “The Practicing Congregation”? Part of it is an attempt to recognize the parallel threads between the mainline and the emergent. I don’t think it conflicts with what you’re saying here, and I think it focuses on how folks who share the emergent urgency to engage more deeply in the practices of faith are finding ways to do that in the mainline context where ongoing community can be a real strength.

    Carter G-C

    • I have read it, and I think there are some good parallels. Where I diverge a bit is that I feel the “organized” church has a lot to learn from these non-traditional groups, and partnering with them has a lot to recommend it instead of merely trying to assimilate them. Bass doesn’t do it so much, but an awful lot of the literature labeled “emergent” is a thinly veiled attempt to get “them” to become “us.” When I did the Seeker research, I was interested in the number of highly motivated Christian disciples who did connect with the mainline and independent churches, then left vowing never to return. All too many of our churches really aren’t prepared to receive a sizable proportion of those “who share the emergent urgency.” Too often, what constitutes “urgency” gets lost in the mainline version.

      • Why should you have to take notes when I don’t? Some people think I just make all this stuff up anyway…

  4. Thanks Dan for sharing.

    I love this blog and what you are sharing.

    I do think though that you are underestimating the emergent church and its effect on our denomination. I will definitely do a longer response on my blog…but i would love to at least respond to one point right now.

    “The Methodist movement aimed at the lower classes — the workers, blue collar and otherwise, with little advanced education. Emergent? Primarily the privileged classes with above average income and education (with some exceptions). ”

    I can’t speak for the larger emergent umc conversation because i am not sure what is all out there. First of all, there are hardly any UMC churches that are doing this. I can think of some pastors but not a single church comes to mind. (you get a lot of talk of social justice but the preachers want to talk about Africa and not about the picket line down the street.)

    our very much emergent UMC church is intentionally trying to figure this out. We are in constant contact with the Justice for Janitors campaign, the hotel workers union campaign (we rent our former parsonage to some of the workers) and we talk alot about the local economy in our sermons.

    we are unique and might be the most fullblown emergent UMC church in the country…but I think the emergent church is closer to Wesley than about anything else out there…

    I just don’t think your giving the emergent conversation enough credit… especially when the mainstream churches and zombie churches have so little to offer on this front….

    • Mike, I think mainline churches have benefited greatly from grassroots extracongregational Christian groups — what got called “emerging/emergent” years after they took root in the early 1980s. Almost immediately, independent evangelical churches picked up on it, changing the anti-institutional, return to original Biblical intentions, live the faith on the streets orientation of the earliest incarnations. Then it came to the mainline churches and became more of a product than a movement. It launched a publishing fad. It opened the door to DVD sales. Praise music people jumped on the bandwagon. None of this means that there hasn’t been value, but that there has been a dramatic redefinition of the counter-institutional Christian movement. Wesley would have been appalled.

      What has the emergent phenomenon done for the church? It has caused us to reexamine many of our practices, has refocused the church on service in the world, has challenged us to reframe biblical interpretation in light of practical theology, and has helped us to name many areas of laziness and hypocrisy. However, I look at my experiences with what I believe are truly “emergent/emerging Christian groups and I see them as pioneers on the ascendant Spiritual Enlightenment Paradigm, while much of what has been written by the major voices of the “emerging/emergent” movement is clearly aligned with the Institutional Preservation Paradigm. I believe that both the “emerging/emergent” and the “missional church” foci are well-intentioned attempts to bridge the two paradigms without having to choose between them. Since around 1989, creative church leaders have attempted to blend the best of the counter-institutional movement with the best of our historical and practical theology. These attempts have met with very mixed results.

      Someone told me today that they felt my insistence on the earliest roots of the movement to the exclusion of the last twenty years doesn’t make sense — if the current definition is the one most people know and use, why not just accept it. I’m okay with that, as long as we realize that there is a very large (and growing) and very healthy self-empowered, self-defining, and powerfully Christian segment of anti-institutional spiritual leaders who are the second and third generation of the earliest movement. These people are deeply turned off by the popular emergent church, and are the source of many of my reflections on how disconnected and alien the mainline churches are from a different kind of “emerging” Christian spirituality. So, hear what I am saying as a “both/and” — what we have learned and the changes we are making are a definite good, but with the institutionalization of the “emergent/emerging” concept we have effectively created a new barrier between “us” and people we wish to reach.

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