The Happy, Happy Hornet’s Nest

Man, what a can of worms!  In two days I have received over 30 emails “helping” me to understand:

  • the emergent movement
  • the emerging church
  • Emergent Village
  • the emergent church
  • The Emerging Church
  • the emerging movement
  • the Emergent Church
  • the emerging and missional church
  • The Missional Church
  • emerging spirituality

And none of them are talking about the same thing…

This — actually — was my point.  It’s what I meant by a label without a referent.  I could have said a subject without an object, or perhaps most accurately a signifier without a signified.  After the onslaught of emails, I am more convinced than ever that this is a prime example of the worst of post-modernism: whatever you want something to be, it is.

Which is not all bad.  I want to emphasize again that whatever we call this mess that has been happening for the past forty-five years, it has offered real positive value to the church of Jesus Christ.  Anything that challenges the status quo is worthwhile, as long as it is not dismissive or destructive.

My Australian friends write that the emergent movement of the early 1980s never got out of Australia in tact.  I can affirm that.  When I first encountered the term, it was 1982, and those Australians that led the movement were fed up with organized religion.  By the late 1980s, the emergent movement had already been usurped by organized churches in Aussieland.  When I first encountered it in the U.S., it was in Lodi, New Jersey in 1986, where a young man named Seth Perry gathered together a small community of people “not good enough” for organized religion.  His group of a handful of social outcasts joined together to form a spiritual community focused on “prayer, mercy, and justice,” and did more to help the poor and marginalized than any ten established churches put together.  Seth’s description of the church always stayed with me — “ours is a community of true Christian believers, emergent from the ashes of the failed church.”  He was deeply influenced by Mark Pierson, though he grew disillusioned with Pierson before his death from an AIDs compromised immune system in 1989.

Emergent went underground for awhile — with a few faithful people hanging on.  It apparently hit the big time in the U.S. with the launch of Emergent Village, but like a shattered glass, shards seem to have spread in many directions — thus the flood of emails.

There is no consensus on what emergent/emerging, or any of the derivations, means.  Or, perhaps, more accurately, it means anything you want it to.  Different people define it different ways, and an incredible amount of energy is expended in trying to establish the “orthodox” definition of this unorthodox phenomenon.

There is great passion among the competing camps (and to be fair, many people associated with the morass deny that it is a “church,” “movement,” or even a “phenomenon.”)  Lots of people seem to be in denial that this is just the newest aspect of the old, old story, but there has never been an era in Christian history that has not provided a parallel.

As has ever been, shall always be — the real value of whatever this is is that it challenges the church that “is” to take a look at what it “should be,” and there is nothing at all wrong with that.  I believe this is why it has been readily assimilated and accommodated by so many in the mainline.  It touches the deep dissatisfaction that many within the institution feel about the institution.  It is nothing new, and it will occur again and again (because we seem incapable of learning from our mistakes…), but it will always remind us that there is more to church than organization, activities, worship services, and committees.  God bless the emergent, emerging, house church, ancient-future — and all the other malcontents.  Hold our feet to the fire… and don’t worry too much about labels and titles.  Therein lies the path to “been there, done that.”  Be what you are, and help us be what we should be.  Thanks.

Check out United Methodist Emergent-cy for more background on this post.

3 replies

    • If I were to put my understanding of the roots of “emergent” (and why I don’t think it aligns well with early Methodism) into a single sentence it would be, “Serious and devout Christians who reject organized religion and the institutional church to form authentic Christian community grounded in the practice of spiritual disciplines and service to the world.” So, reformation — yes, but with absolutely NO interest in institutionalizing the organization. In my experience, emergent groups are not trying to replace one structure with another — they reject the current structure and plan to be together until they’re not any more. Past (as far as organized religion) means nothing, future means nothing, the only thing that matters is faithful and meaningful life in the present.

      • And Dan, what you are describing is what I would call just one slice of the larger emerging-missional way/conversation, whatever-label-makes-most-sense.

        Not all of us are anti-institutional. The intellectual roots of this work are not. (You really can’t find a more “institutional” Christian thinker/writer in the 20th century than Lesslie Newbigin). Some instantiations of it in the 1980s to the present were and still are anti-institutional. But only some.

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