Friday, March 02, 2007

What is the "emerging church"?

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?


Randy Roda said...

Keith...great column. I agree with the emergent church in one regard. The symbols and sacraments of traditional Christianity have incredible meaning and value when we find fresh ways to interpret and experience them. But we must go beyond the Book Of Worship and find new approaches. I'd love to hear what you might have in mind.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Well, for starters, I'd look at the Book of Common Prayer, the best liturgical resource ever put together (after the Psalms, Genesis 1, and Revelation). Also, I'd look at the liturgies of other traditions...Roman Catholic and especially the Eastern Orthodox, as well as those of the early Church.

Then, I'd think of ways to make the Eucharist (for example) more "fully experiential", using as many of the senses as possible. Have bread baking, so the smell of bread permeates the worship space (this is doable with so many "bread machines" on the market). While the pastor should lead the Great Thanksgiving, let the laity handle the elements and actually share them, and, of course, intinction is the method of choice. Have art displayed on a techno-screen...images of Jesus and the disciples, the Cross, the Last Supper, whatever might be appropriate for the theme.

These are just ideas, but they could enrich the sacramental experience. The sacrament is MORE than the bread and the's the whole experience.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Incidentally, the seasonal Great Thanksgivings in our current Book of Worship are WONDERFUL...probably the best liturgical items in the book. I recommend them.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Also, Eucharistic frequency is a MUST. None of this quarterly crap. The only congregation I know of in our Conference which celebrates the sacrament at EVERY SUNDAY SERVICE is Hot Metal Bridge. That's very telling, and it's also a testament to Jim Walker's Wesleyan commitment.

Corben said...

Interesting post and review of the emerging church,

As I have said before, "it is all about relationships"

I think we might be theologically similar :-)

Brett Probert said...

This is a great post. You seem to have grasped and distilled the main issues that an emerging generation seems to be dealing with.

I do NOT understand why you were not invited to the "cohort" (which BTW appears to be yet another WPAUMC hot air balloon) because you are in many ways more of an emergent leader than many around that table, myself included.

Anonymous said...

Hey Keith great thoughts. I think I told you before you really are an emergent so start coming to some conferences with us. Have a blessed weekend my emerging friend. Grace and Peace, John

Brett Probert said...

For the record, I have NEVER behested Keith. In fact, I do not recall ever having behested anyone.

Chris said...

Keith, while Concord has 2 traditional services, a (what you would term as) baby-boomer style, our newest service, Sunday Celebration, is not a baby-boomer service.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

That's why I included Concord in the last paragraph; I think you & Hot Metal might be about it.

Chris said...

Yes you did...and yes I missed it. Good post.

Greg Cox said...

To answer your question Keith, I can do it in three very short words.

New Church Starts.

But then again, what preacher can say something in only three words. WE compete against the system and the old ways of doing it, and at the same time lose those who are looking for something new. I believe that many of our problems will be best served by moving in the direction of the new church start, and appoint people who are intentional about their hospice care.

Greg Cox said...

Let me clarify that last statement - we should appoint pastors who want to minister in the same way to those churches who intentionally choose to remain the way they are - that's what I mean by hospice.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

But not every non-emergent church...whether "traditional" or "Baby Boomer" doomed. In our Conference, Charter Oak seems to be doing pretty well with the Baby Boomer thing, and my guess is that Brett's doing the same kind of thing at Cornerstone. And the booming Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City seems pretty traditional to me, at least in many ways.

My fear is, though, that they all may miss certain folks who don't respond to these approaches, and that we miss yet another generation.

I also think that new church starts are a real answer (or at least new communities, though they may not be "churches" in any traditional sense). But we have few folks (in my view) wired to do that. Chris Whitehead may be the best qualified guy we've got, and if he's tethered to Charter Oak, then we need to look at other options.

I know that I am not gifted in that area, though I would be GREAT, I think, at supporting and helping a pastor who WAS starting a new community of faith.

Chris said...

Perhaps we should use the term "Missional Church." We all know that Hot Metal will not work in Kane District. So why sould we try...insted lets plat a church (Greg, I agree with you) a church or empower a pastor to be missional to the area he or she is placed in.

Like a missionary, the missional church seeks to figure out the culture it exists in, and then present the Gospel in a way that the culture can understand it.

Missionaries have been doing "emergent" church for generations. Perhaps we should follow their lead, look at our surroundings and inroduce them to Jesus?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

What would it mean to "empower a pastor to be missional to the area he or she is placed in"? Don't we already do that, or at least try to do that?

Greg Cox said...

The problem with empowerment is that it could come from a new church start from above, but in an established church, it would have to come from the church itself. Many churches are just not willing to do that.

To the point about certain churches not needing to close - I agree. Emergent or not - there are just some churches that are "doing it" and others who are not. Churches that are really making an impact being who they are have a real sense of mission and ministry, they have purpose and vision.

So maybe therein lies one other answer to the question. We need more pastors and more churches who are willing to reexamine their ministry and seek God's leading, emergent or not. We should all be missional.

Chris Whitehead said...


I'm suprised that John didn't comment that every week after Sunday night we celebrated Communion together in the Christ Church Chapel.

In the next six months Charter Oak Church will form its first leadership team for starting our frst satelite site. And in the next year we will form our first team for starting our first new church in another country.

I'm not so sure I would classify Charter Oak Church as doing the baby Boomer thing. I just don't go for the whole "titles" mentality. I'm just seeking to be obedient.

Thanks for the props on the new church gifting. With what we have done in the last year with the new building and the work surrounding the launch, it had some components of doing a new start, not totally, but having the training was a big plus.

Anonymous said...

...Sorry I've been late in the conversation...but there are some emerging things about to happen in the coming months...keep us in your prayers...thanks Chris, yes in the emerging ministries of CUMC: Bethel Park we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday Night (and a number of times throughout the week)...