Friday, January 4, 2008

2008 and the collapse of the Emerging Church

There's an interesting discussion thread on the main Emergent Village Web site (posted in part and linked to below) in response to a prediction by Kester Brewin, author of the book "Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving," that 2008 will see the collapse of the "emerging church" as a popular project. Says Kester:
It’s just a hunch, but I sense that some of the key players are less and less willing to work with that particular language. I think that, whereas a few years ago people were excited by the prospect, people are getting used to/bored/fed up with ‘emerging church’ as a concept, and will thus leave it behind. Not that I think that that means ‘game over’ for all that people like Emergent stand for — far from it actually — but I think people may increasingly assimilate those ideas into their practice without taking the name. (I think for some time this has been foreseen in the collapse in usefulness of the term ‘emerging church’, which is so tired as a phrase it has begun to mean nothing.)
As new as I am to the Emergent discussion, Kester's comments strike a chord. I, too, find the term "emergent" wearing a bit thin. And I wonder if, by holding this converation largely outside of our respective churches, we aren't missing an opportunity to engage our faith in a rich, meaningful way within our churches.

Like many people, I sought out conversation partners via the emergent movement because I'm dissatisfied with my church's seeming disinterest in challenging its members to radically live out the faith in Jesus that we profess. I want and need to be held accountable for my life -- not just for my behavior in the pews, but for the way I reflect Christ in my home as a father and parent, at my workplace as a supervisor, in the voting booth as a citizen, walking past the homeless, how I earn and spend my money, who I invite into my home and show hospitality, what food and entertainment I consume. And I strongly believe that should be the role of the church, both lowercase and capital "C." My hope was, and is, that together we in the emergent discussion can prepare, instruct and encourage one another to go back to our churches and enact our vision for Christ's body. When all the coffee is drunk, all the talking is done, all our hopes and fears are laid out on the table, all our wounds licked and healed, in the end we have to be the kinds of church we're all hungering for, to show our fellow congregants what a truly dynamic, engaged, biblical kind of faith life can look like.

For all its many qualities, and despite Kester's mistaken (I believe) reference to the "emerging church," this wonderful conversation is not a church. In some cases it's inspired people to form new churches, but really it's a means to an end. It's a communal effort to examine the Gospel with fresh eyes and to develop a vision for Christian living and mission that binds up inextricably personal salvation with social and political and economic justice. It recognizes the Kingdom of God is a present reality today and demands our participation, that God's kingdom is not simply a place where pious people aspire to spend their eternal rest.

Unless we put this emerging vision into action in our own lives, in our own churches, the emergent conversation will amount to a flash that generated considerable heat and yet failed to shine any light.


nancy said...

I see exactly what you're saying Stephen. In that regard, the "emerging church" at best has never been meant to be a movement or organization with a life of it's own. Yet isn't that exactly what we tend to do. We want the latest craze. If "emerging church" is a fad, movement, or new entity unto itself, we have missed it.

What I find interesting is that nothing is really new in the emerging church discourse. As I read somewhere, there have been "fringe" elements of the church that have much to teach us. Having spent many years among the Mennonite community, I find that they have well understood much of what evangelical Christianity has overlooked.

An Anglican priest friend of mine said he says so much of the emphases of the emergent dialog as articulation of typical main line views. Perhaps the point is that the emergent dialog has put pieces together in a way which bridges the gap.

For me, it has helped resolve long held problems that have nagged at me. I'm finding the move away from personal salvation, afterlife in heaven/hell, and fortress mentality us/them practices has been life giving. Re-situating Jesus in his historical context has brought the scriptures to life in a way I didn't realize I was missing.

I'm thankful for the dialog, and at the same time heartily say let's not form something new and separate, but reform our lives, both personal and corporate, as followers of Jesus in order to bring about the hopeful transformation of Kingdom life.

Stephen said...

Hi, Nancy: Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I had no idea you'd spent time in the Mennonite community. Yes, I, too, find a lot of what's coming out of the emergent movement as "new" is actually quite old and traditional among, for instance, the Roman Catholic church of my childhood. Praying the hours, contemplative prayer, the use of incense and imagery to help one focus one's mind on God, as well as the social activism of, say, Dorothy Day or even Mother Theresa.

Unlike many folks I've come across via emergent, I never grew up with the language I typically associate with evangelicals -- that of accepting Jesus as one's personal savior, all the notions of the end times as a big apocalyptic clean sweep by God. There was no Vacation Bible School, no "Jesus Loves Me This I Know," no Bible verse memorization competitions. But I did grow up with a very strong sense that we (meaning us Catholics) had heaven sewn up and that everyone else (meaning particularly the breakaway denominations) were heathen. So I guess we all bring our gifts, and our baggage, to the dance.