Mark 9:38-41 "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us."
So about a year ago I was introduced to the Emerging Church (EC) by a class of that name. I blogged about it at the time here. I’m writing now to correct some of my misconceptions I had at the time. (What is the emerging church? Click here, here and here.)
Since then I have read some of McLaren’s work, Church on the Other Side, and A Generous Orthodoxy, and taken a few more classes on related topics, ones such as Doing Theology in Context, and Church as Mission. And during this last spring break (all of one week) I read Gibb and Bolger’s Emerging Church. So now I have a few more things to say about the topic, most of which is just re-hashing things which, if your at all conversant on this topic, you have already seen somewhere else.
This is my take, my present position in the conversation: I love it, I have some critiques, but I love it.
Why? Because it is seeking to missionally engage a group of people (postmodern culture) that would not darken the door of a church, or have, and got burned. Additionally, although postmodern culture has elements that are anti-Christian, I think it is an improvement on modern culture which is itself very anti-Christian, and which the evangelical church is thoroughly in league with. (Granted, not always to the point of being un-Christ like.) Regardless, postmodernity or whatever comes next is where we are going.
The number one thing I have taken hold of while here at seminary is being missional, a word brought to life by the sentence: people should not have to cross cultural boundaries to come to Christ. Arguably, the EC is doing this better than anyone else in the West.
I’m not sufficiently intellectually or culturally postmodern to truly be full-tilt in that camp, which is ok. If there is anything I’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that authenticity is essential! Culturally I’m in a middle morass, too much of a geek to really engage postmodern culture authentically, too evangelical to be the EC, and too relativistic to be evangelical (with a few fundamentalist and un-orthodox streaks thrown in for good measure). And again, all of this is ok with me. I really don’t get too hung up on what label is most appropriate to slap on my forehead.
One of my biggest misconceptions at my original introduction was that art and candles made one an EC. I critiqued this as being simply a Gen-X seeker sensitive thing. I was right to notice that there are indeed such contraptions, but wrong to put these under the rubric of EC.
All of this being said, I still have some critiques.
I’m a bit concerned about possible EC syncretism with postmodern culture, but that is a challenge for the church in every culture. I’m not entirely sure how to draw the line between being missional, and syncretism, but I’m pretty sure that all of us, fundamentalist, evangelical, postmodern, have some challenges in that area.
Another is putting Jesus first, no really. When I play at theology, I have to question if any person of the trinity should be put in front of another. It tends to lead to a cannon within a cannon, which I have also noticed to be true of some elements of the EC (the gospels come first), but they have rightly critiqued the evangelical church for tending to put the Pauline texts first, or the charismatic/Pentecostal church for putting the Spirit first to the exclusion of others. So it’s an understandable pendulum swing, and even a defensible position.
The argument goes that Jesus was the fullest revelation of God, so he should be more normative than God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, who we arguably know less about. I might point out that we are filled with the Holly Ghost, but let's not get into that.
The last is leadership without control. I’m critiquing this mainly from a practical perspective. As the leaders of Emergent pointed out, someone has to figure out who is going to bring the plates and cups, figuratively speaking. This challenge applies to both the local body, and the conversation/movement as a whole. Some, or even most in the group want this to be purely a conversation. But the formation of Emergent, clearly marks it as, if not a movement, something a little more formed than simply a conversation, a fact which really gets under the skin of some in the conversation.
Some groups as detailed in Gibb’s and Bolger’s book have taken this to an extreme, having very little leadership. But others, having gone there, realize it dosn’t work too well, and are now exercising more control. Again, it’s an understandable pendulum swing. Following so many abuses of leadership by the fundamentalist and evangelical church, it’s not surprizing that many want a form of Christian spirituality, devoid of leadership. However, I think that no leadership can result in just as much if not more spiritual abuse as having a strong leader. (Often what emerges is defacto leadership, an un-named power source that everyone is aware of, but does nothing about. This is very dishonest.)
In conclusion, I want space. Space for the EC to do its thing, and space for the evangelical church to continue to do its thing. And space for the two to learn from each other, and stop throwing stones. There need not be so much of this, particularly since both groups share the same body of Christ, and live in glass houses.
Where am I personally going? How will I function? I want authentic, missional communities. That requires dialog. Dialog with the local community of believers, and dialog with the larger local culture, which is daily becoming global. Spiritual Practices, (which arguably everything is) must be, among other things, authentic. I’m more concerned with that process, authentic dialog taking place, than with what that eventually looks like. I’m certainly not going to buy an EC kit and strap it onto whatever congregation I end up in, but to be fair, I am oriented in that direction, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Rom 14:4 “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”