At the behest of a friend, I've been reading up lately on the "missional", "vintage", "authentic", "emergent" or "emerging" church. While doing the research, I've discovered some things about the Church, this movement (or "conversation", as some call it), and myself. Some of these discoveries have been surprising, others not so.
What is the "emerging church", in my humble opinion?
D.A. Carson, a critic of the movement, believes that the movement began as a reactionary protest against the Baby Boomer style of Church (itself a reaction against the staid traditionalism of mainline Christianity), which has sought to be "seeker sensitive", "current", and "relevant", emphasizing "contemporary worship" and the now prominent "praise band" style of worship music. These churches, exemplified by Saddleback and Willow Creek, were viewed by many postmoderns (born after about 1968, perhaps a bit later) as being as compromised and institutionalized as their predecessors (the stereotypical "First Church" in what used to be the center of the community).
Emergent leaders sought something else from Christianity, something with more depth, something with more history, something with more transcendence. At the same time, they had no desire to simply return to the older compromises offered by mainline traditionalism.
Thus, a new "conversation" or "movement" was birthed, or is still in the process of being born. What exemplifies this new movement? A few traits follow.
* The emerging church is centered around a postmodern or post-"Baby Boom" worldview. This isn't to say that everyone involved in the movement was born after a certain date, but that the way that they view and process the world differs from the dominant worldview of the "Constantinian Church" (as defined by folks such as Hauerwas, Willimon, and Mead, well before the current movement began). Accordingly, emergents learn differently than their predecessors, they absorb information and process it differently; they are far more experiential than those who came before.
* The emerging church is centered around the concepts of dialogue and conversation rather than traditional apologetics or strict dogmatic statements. This isn't to say that "anything goes" in the movement; in fact, it seems to me that there is a real move to emphasize traditional ecumenical doctrinal positions among emergent participants. These positions tend to be very simple, consensus-based, and non-denominational, relying on what Roger Olson refers to as "the Great Tradition" (actually, his book The Mosaic of Christian Beliefs could emerge as a key text for emergent folks). Beyond these relatively few doctrinal keys (Incarnation, Trinity, Atonement, Resurrection, etc.), there is great room for discussion. Even outright heresy is not to be condemned if it is honest and open to change. Absolutes, in other words, don't have the same value they had for previous generations. Narrative theology is far more prominent than propositional Christianity (not that these two are necessarily in conflict).
* The emerging church often views its faith journey through the lens of popular culture. John Calvin and John Wesley remain strong voices, as do more recent thinkers such as Richard Foster and Stanley Hauerwas, but they vie for attention with U2, Yoda, Forrest Gump, Saturday Night Live, Homer Simpson, and Jerry Seinfeld. This isn't to suggest that emerging thinkers are necessarily shallow; far from it. It is merely to say that they paint from a much broader palette, and take into account a great many more voices when developing theology, including voices which may not be intentionally theological at all.
* The emerging church has little patience with "solitary Christianity". Community is celebrated as a primary value, and the idea that one can be a "private Christian" is largely rejected. The faith is to be lived in community. The emerging church affirms few ecclesiological guidelines. One can have a bishop or not, be in an episcopal system or not, be congregationally-based or not. All of this is subservient to the idea of community, wherever it may develop. As opposed to the "megachurch" bodies, community for emergents is best celebrated in much smaller units, which provide more intimacy, accountability, and relational opportunities.
* The emerging church is strongly interested in both "ancient" and "modern" models for Christianity. Older hymns, liturgies, and symbols are utilized, as are guitars and chorus-singing. "High church" and "low church" blend. There tends to be a high view of the sacraments, as opposed to the lower views held by many of the "Baby Boomer" bodies (such as Saddleback and Willow Creek).
* The emerging church is intensely political. Rejected, however, are the often shallow claims of the Religious Right and the Secular Left, as well as any strict devotion to a political party. Emergents tend to be both anti-abortion and anti-capital punishment; they tend to be anti-war and anti-poverty. Poverty and AIDS, in fact, seem to be two significant issues among emergents, with the Iraq War becoming more important every day. My reading has shown that emergents tend to reject the leadership of both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and are looking for a political leader to inspire them and emphasize emergent issues (many seem to have high hopes for Barack Obama). It is key to note that emergent politics are lived politics...emergents aren't just interested in voting for someone to do something about poverty, they're interested in feeding the poor themselves...emergents aren't just interested in voting for someone to do something about AIDS, they're interested in loving AIDS patients personally. Again, emergents are very experiential.
* The emerging church loves technology, and much of the conversation is Internet / blogosphere based.
Key influences have been Walter Brueggemann, Richard Foster, Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, George Lindbeck, Jürgen Moltmann, William Willimon, and the Taizé Community.
Key figures include:
* Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis)
* Bono (U2)
* Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution)
* Dan Kimball (The Emerging Church)
* Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed)
* Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christian)
One of the things I discovered while conducting this research is that I am, in many ways, "emergent". That surprised me, and still does, since I don't really see myself as very "current". Yet, I have developed (quite independently of the emergent conversation, the existence of which I was largely unaware) an emergent approach to ministry. That said, I'm not gifted to begin a new community of faith...not at all, not even a little bit.
A concern is that, if this is an important aspect of the future of the Church, Western PA Conference is largely lacking in both emergent leadership and emergent communities. We have a plethora of traditional congregations (including the one I serve), and some "Baby Boomer"-style congregations (such as Charter Oak, New Stanton and Concord).
I can think of only Hot Metal Bridge as a real "emergent" United Methodist community in our Conference, although I think Concord may be birthing a new piece of the conversation. There may be others; I plead ignorance. How can Western PA Conference intentionally adapt to this new generation and effectively enter the future into which God is calling us?