Essay / Culture

The Who? What? Where? When? and Why? of the Emerging Church

I’ve just finished up co-teaching a class on ‘Readings in Emerging Church Theology’ with Ron Benefiel at Nazarene Theological Seminary. What a joy to be talking church, theology and ministry with pastors-in-training!

Too many conversations on this subject begin, ‘What exactly is the emerging church?’ The response is some variation on, ‘Um…well…it’s sort of…well, it’s hard to pin down.’ This is true enough of any new movement, and more than true of the choir (or, as it seems at times, the cacophony) of voices that make up the emerging ‘conversation’. In part, this reflects the still-converging nature of things emergent. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some thoughts about the emerging church. Most will be in the form of dispatches from the front.

Who? More often than not, young, white, hip, politically left-leaning, American or British, post/ex/neo-evangelicals. Plenty of pastor’s kids. More urban than suburban. It would also be fair to answer as follows: Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, Karen Ward and a cadre of like-minded theopractitioners.

What? Better, what not? This is a more-the-merrier approach to doing church. Boundaries are porous, influences are many. But the ‘what not?’ question also points to the only just subsiding tide of deconstruction. As one student put it, ‘I went underground and started blogging’. Seems most of the movement did to, and for a long time. Nearly a decade of sometimes decadent deconstruction later, the tone has begun to shift noticeably to reconstruction. If Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy is far from a Marshall Plan, it is nevertheless a good first stab.

It is an intellectually sprawling, culturally curious, theologically experimental movement drawing from a range of resources to create churches and communities that reflect and witness to the Kingdom. (More on this later.)

Where? By and large, the urban cultural centers of North America and the UK. That’s one way to answer the question. Another is this: not in churches, but in pubs and clubs and people’s living rooms. Another answer: on the internet. The often unaffiliated emerging churches float test balloon ideas and draw strength and sustenance in online community. This is an e-conversation.

When? Not Sunday morning. Whenever the small community gathers, whether for discussion or prayer or service. And, mostly, all the time. The ecclesiological move here is to consider the church as missional rather than having a mission. Mission constitutes the church, rather than being a mere appendage.

Why? Because modernity is old and tired, if not dead. (Remember, I’m reporting here. One of the debates — and almost every sentence in this post hides a cache of subtext — is whether the culture of postmodernity studied and often enough cheered on by emerging Christians isn’t simply modernism run amok. Sometimes it’s tough to tell dawn from dusk.) Because the gospel is bigger, bolder and more beautiful than the rations delivered in seeker churches. Because the gospel implicates itself in more than mere mental assent and isolated moral requirements, demanding to be heard and responded to in all of life. Or, to put it with less pluck: Many emerging Christians react to a perceived narrowness in the churches of their youth, a narrowness seen in meanness, an allergy to doubt and struggles with faith, a suspicion (if not declaration) that those outside ‘our church’ are not Christians, and a way of Christian life reducible to praying a prayer and not doing a whole lot of things. Combine this perceived narrowness with a major cultural shift calling for a re-examination of some of our most basic presuppositions, and a sense of the cultural deafness of the church in North America and the UK and you begin to catch the drift of the emerging conversation.

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