Essay / Culture

Emergent Allergies: Boundaries

The problem with boundaries is that they serve too often to keep people out, rather than to keep people in. Insider/outsider, or ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language too often threatens to undermine a gospel which is about an ever-expanding ‘us’ group. Furthermore, it tends to seduce us into thinking that ‘they’ are the problem, at which point we sit elbow-to-elbow with the Pharisees and receive the brunt of Jesus’ wrath. So, the boundaries in many emerging churches are porous, which mainly means these churches are uninterested in determining who’s out and who’s in. These are churches that speak the language of ‘journey’ and ‘pilgrimage’, who speak of being on the ‘way’ of and with Jesus. The exact stage a person is at is somewhat irrelevant, so long as they are on the journey. Again, the allergy here is partly a reaction to the Berlin Wall separating church and world in ‘our parents’ churches’, particularly when that Wall could be equated with things like use of alcohol, tobacco, dancing or cussing (with the result that smoking, chewing or going with girls who did either of those two could land one a one-way ticket to East Berlin).

At the church where I worshiped and pastored in Kansas City, Trinity Church of the Nazarene, we spoke of ‘belonging before and as you believe.’ This could be seen in pragmatic terms as smart evangelism. In a time in America where tract evangelism and quick prayers prayed has worn thin, and when many fall into the ‘formerly churched’ rather than simply ‘unchurched’ category, a slower process of evangelism by enculturation makes good sense. And so it does.

But I think there’s more to it. To say that one belongs ‘before and as’ one believes is to say that becoming and being a Christian is more than a function of mere assent. This is commonsensical enough, but consider how many churches operate on the basis of an (at least functional) philosophy of ministry in which praying a prayer gets one ‘in’, after which one tries to help get others ‘in’. And, sometimes it even seems that’s about it. Emerging churches (here following Hauerwas, who followed MacIntyre, who followed Aquinas and Benedict and Aristotle) speak the language of practice, arguing that we become that which we do. As I told a non-believing friend who didn’t want to be a hypocrite, ‘Fake it!’ It is by doing certain things — by worshiping and praying, by seeking and granting forgiveness, by loving the poor and serving all — that we are formed into the kind of people who do those kinds of things naturally. This is the point where a good, stiff reminder of the Trinity is called for. This is not bootstrap spirituality. It is the Spirit who is conforming us to the image of Christ as we engage in these practices together.

Curiously, then, the porous boundaries and the widening of the tent are paired with a raising of the bar when it comes to discipleship. It’s easy to hear the theologically ambiguous responses to pointed questions in emerging churches and think this something of a doctrinal fire sale. But attendance to the life of these communities quickly adjusts that judgment. Typically, emerging churches are far more radical in discipleship (the Anabaptists loom large, as does, perhaps ironically, the Jesus movement of the 1970s) than traditional evangelical churches. If following Jesus is the measure of a church, then these emerging churches measure up quite well indeed. (But that’s another allergy: measurement!)

One wrong turn that many seem to be making in the emerging conversation is the movement from a softening of boundaries to a near-denial of the exclusivity of Christ. Here, we all simply need to sit down and read a lot of Lesslie Newbigin. He’s brilliant on locating the abiding uniqueness of Jesus in the midst of a chastened epistemology and a pluralist society. The truth about Jesus is a particular truth, he argues. Moreover, it is only even known from a particular perspective. But it is a truth that is held with universal intent, one that demands to be published everywhere and at all times. At this point, we should affirm the emerging reticence to slot people (which may presume too much about just what the Spirit is up to in a person’s life) while also continuing to call emerging churches to live as witnesses to Christ, the home of our hope.

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