Today I began, in earnest, an exploration of the landscape of the Emergent Church. I am taking a class studying emergence—the people, ideas and manifestations of the movement. When I tell people that I am studying the Emergent Church, the inevitable next question is: “What is the Emergent Church?” Some who ask the question have an idea of what it is and want my take on it. Most have simply never heard of it.
I think those in the Emergent “movement” would likely call it a conversation about how the Christian Church should think and act within the post-modern, post-Christian context of our current Western culture. In a sense, what is emerging is a sort, or sorts, of post-Evangelical Christianity.
I have been leading a young adult ministry for a few years now. We also began by asking questions about what exactly a young adult ministry should look like in our particular Southern California context. And truly it has been a conversation. It has been a conversation with our mother church’s expectations. What does our board, staff and congregation want in a young adult ministry? What is the need in our church or community that we can meet? It has been a conversation with the actual young adults who attend. Where are they at in their spiritual journey? How can we help them grow? What we learned is that every person in our fellowship contributes in unique ways to the others and changes the shape of our ministry and we have developed a very person-driven church life. It has been a conversation with Scripture. We try to faithfully understand God’s Word and mold ourselves and our fellowship to the truth we discover. Mostly, the conversation has been with the Holy Spirit. We try to stay attuned to Him and watch as He guides us step by step. In many instances, our organizational posture and practices turn out to look much like some of the so-called emergent churches. The fundamental difference is that we see ourselves as a movement toward truth. Many of the emergent church leaders (not all) see themselves as a movement away from what has come to be accepted as true into a new understanding of truth. At its core, the difference is that while the community of which I am a part seeks to experience transformation through truth (Truth > experience), emergent communities seek to first embody the truth in the way of Jesus and then interpret “truth” through the lens of experience (experience > truth).
For example, the fellowship that I pastor could be considered decentralized. You could come to one of our gatherings and never know what my role is in our ministry. I teach Bible study; but I encourage others to do the same. I preach at our gatherings; but I am only one of a team of preachers in our body. I lead worship sometimes; but I am not the lead worshiper anymore. My role as the leader is essentially praying for and equipping our people to minister to each other. Now, that does not mean I have no authority as a pastor. It simply means I do not lord it over the others. I use my authority to empower the others. This is all due to our reading of scripture. In Ephesians 4 we are told that the ministry of pastors is to edify and equip the others to be the ministers. In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 we are told that each person is to do their part in building one another up and using their unique strengths for the common good. A worship gathering should be something like a pot luck or gift exchange. So, that is how we have endeavored to order our gatherings.
An emergent congregation may also look very similar. But their motivation may be very different. Most emergent leaders find themselves in this camp for one or two reasons: to be relevant in a postmodernism culture and / or as a reaction to evangelicalism.
Relevance within the postmodernism age is very much on my radar as well. Postmodernism is a very real and fundamental shift in our culture. It accounts for the reality of how people think these days. And the Church MUST adapt and respond. For the emergents, this response can take two forms (or something in between). The first response might be repackaging the same old time-tested, historical, orthodox Christian faith so that people with a secular, postmodern mindset can grasp it and engage. That is, we can re-communicate the gospel to a new generation in a new era, retaining the substance of the truth and reality of scripture. (I would definitely put myself in this camp.)
The other response might be to rethink Christianity altogether and basically take on the tenets of postmodernism and apply them to the Church. Truth and tradition get a thorough deconstruction. Christianity becomes true only insofar as it is lived out in your own community. Language becomes primarily creative rather than communicative. Confidence in scripture is held loosely as other religious points of view take on more significance. Christian ethics starts to sound more like secular humanism than Christian compassion.
However they land in their response to postmodernism, emergent churches then have to contend with their evangelical forefathers, the contexts from which most of them emerged. If we need a new way to communicate the truth to a new mode of thinking then continuing in the now established Evangelical traditions may be counterproductive. The evangelistic mindset of Revivalism and the discipleship methods of Wesley are terribly passé and ineffective for the average person today. We need new ways to capture hearts with the true story of God. (Again, I am onboard here.) There are those with this attitude of care for the culture who understand we need new approaches to ministry. Then there are those who have been burned by the evangelical churches in which they found themselves and are now reacting against them on more personal levels. Also, there are others who have adopted postmodern thinking altogether and, as a matter of course, have thrown the baby (evangelicalism) out with the bathwater, opting for an less orthodox expression of spirituality.
So, an emergent church may happen to look like the fellowship that I pastor in some ways. However, in the aforementioned example, the route they take would likely be very different. If it is a church trying to be relevant to postmodern culture, their motivation might be to make their congregation more participatory or communal for a hands-on and connected culture (admittedly, one of my motivations as well). If it is a church that is adopting postmodern tendencies, their motivation could be to allow their congregation to create their own unique version of Christianity that is authentic to them. If it is a church that is shedding its “churchiness” to be more accessible to a new people, their motivation may be to show that church is not all about the “talking head” at the podium. Or if it is a church that is totally reacting against evangelical practice altogether, its motivation may be a distrust of authority in reaction to an actual or possible misuse of authority that prompts the decentralized ministry environment.
As I am a pastor committed to pursuing truth, I cannot accept adoption of postmodern tenets as a means to be relevant. Rather, I support addressing postmodern thinking with biblical truth in new ways. As an evangelical, I also see our weaknesses. But our strength is in staying true to the faith. And while I anticipate growth in our tradition I do pray that any movement toward relevance will remain anchored in truth.
This is not to say I think I have it all figured out. As Leonard Sweet has said, “not one of us can boast immaculate perceptions.” But just because none of us have it all figured out does not mean that some of us don’t see it more clearly than others. There is a reality to be perceived. We can know that we know what we know. Then we go from there. And within the Christian faith there are immense chunks of Truth that are truly beyond a reasonable doubt. Yes, we will always be discovering nuances and nuggets of Truth, And by both these nuances and these nuggets I am nourished. The Word of God is indeed living and active. But its fundamental truths are unchanging. It must not be discounted or diluted. It must be studied, understood, lived out and communicated in whatever context we find ourselves. Wherever the emerging conversation may lead, it must begin with and be grounded in scripture.