A little over a year ago a friend of mine and I were invited to lead a seminar at Nazarene General Assembly assessing the Emerging Church and its relationship to the denomination. I said then, I have written in several places, and I will repeat it here, I have never considered myself to be part of the EC. (It’s hard to truly be emerging when you pastor the second oldest church in the denomination. We still have a choir and orchestra for goodness sake J). I have, however, considered myself a somewhat sympathetic critic of the movement. I consider my own position to be a Wesleyan version of the Reformed position Jim Belcher takes in his book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.
Anyway, a year ago, the EC conversation was THE buzz. People loved it or hated it. They considered it the hope of the church or the seed of its destruction. When I wrote my five-part series on the EC a year ago my blog received hundreds of hits each day with people wanting to read all they could about this important movement.
A year later, I can’t find a whole lot of people who care. In particular I can’t find any scholarly folk who want to talk about it. One of my theological colleagues here at APU summed it up well in a conversation last week. “For all practical purposes the EC movement is dead. It is over and done. Does anybody care about it anymore?”
Oh sure, there are still plenty of people talking and blogging about the EC. There are a few seminars still going on with either pro-emerging or anti-emerging overtones to them. But it is my prediction that one year from now even those lingering conversations will largely have faded into the distance. I would agree with my colleague. The EC movement is essentially dead. I wish I was the first one to make this declaration, but I’m not. Michael Patton and Anthony Bradley have already written nice obituaries for the Emerging Church [http://online.worldmag.com/2010/04/14/farewell-emerging-church-1989-2010/ and http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/05/obituary-the-emerging-church-1994-2009/]
But how and why did the EC die? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons we could point to, but let me reflect on a few (in no particular order).
I believe that it was philosopher Herbert Marcuse who argued that revolutionary movements couldn’t last long in a capitalist society because eventually the market swallows them up. For example, the hippies in the 60s may have been trying to rebel against society but eventually the musicians who sang at Woodstock played on The Tonight Show, you could start buying tie-dye t-shirts at The Gap, and the revolution is over because what was outside the system ends up being swallowed up and becoming part of the system.
In like manner, the prophetic voice of the EC was largely killed by the marketing of the movement by the Christian publishing machine. Once the EC became its own industry it was no longer a movement but a “trend.” And trends are pretty short-lived. In the increasingly market-oriented Christian world, people move on to the “next thing” in a hurry. Joe and Jane average Christian who started out praying the prayer of Jabez, only to then be filled with a fresh wind and fresh fire for a while, have wondered what Jesus would do, they have been purpose-driven for a season, they hung out in The Shack for a while, they’ve been emerging for a bit, and now it’s time for whatever is next. So good luck finding a publisher who will print anything today with “emerging” in the title because, as the kids would say, “that’s so 2009.”
Unfortunately, many of the prophecies that the EC leaders were just early twentieth-century theological liberals in new clothing turned out to be true. I think self-proclaimed leaders of the EC went further theologically than those who were following could or would go. Personally, I think the mistake many of them made was when they left local church ministry and became travelling speakers focused on publishing careers. I am convinced that it is dangerous to be able to write or say whatever your publisher will let you get away with. In my own case I find it vitally important for me to stay accountable to the people I pastor and to remain under the authority of the denomination in which I’m ordained. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate those who keep the conversation lively at the boundaries of the faith. I do. But I think those discussions only stay grounded when they are ultimately tied to the historic Body of Christ in some tangible (and local) way.
Particularly in the areas of atonement, justification, homosexuality, divine judgment, and the exclusivity of Christ, some of the most prominent EC leaders went further than those of us tied to historical communities of faith would or could go. I think that forms of deconstruction are healthy but only if they lead to new and better construction. I’m not sure some of the EC leaders ever got around to helping construct a faith – at least a faith that was still tied to the historical faith.
It is not unusual, by the way, for reforming movements to go too far. When the Reformation began to take hold, Luther had to denounce his colleague Andreas Karlstadt for using the Reformation to incite the peasants to revolt. Luther believed that the people needed to react against the oppressive authority of the Church, but what Karlstadt was doing by inciting violence was too far for Luther.
I think there are many who have either supported or defended the EC movement who feel deeply disappointed in some of the leaders for pushing the boundaries farther than they or their local church could go.
The Resiliency of the Institutional Church
It is beginning to look like the initial reports of the death of the institutional church were greatly exaggerated. In fact, what seems to be happening is not the death of the established church but a revitalization of many denominations in response to many of the critiques by the EC. I would point to someone like Tim Keller and the Redeemer Presbyterian church planting movement as one example (of many) of the revitalization of established and even mainstream denominations.
The reality of postmodernity does not mean that people will just be suspicious of institutions and authority, it also means that postmodern isolated individuals will go looking for a movement bigger than the solitary self and with historical roots deeper than what is happening right now. I think, in the end, rather than having a new church emerge from the cultural changes taking place we will find that the Spirit of God helped the church respond to the needs of shifting cultural contexts.
Not only that, but as is always the case, the strongest churches within the movement became institutions themselves. In his recent sermon on the resurrection (from April 4) Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, admitted that although Mars Hill started out to be a different kind of church without the baggage of the watered-down “seeker” churches and the religious legalism of “traditional” churches, that Mars Hill had become a big institution that wounded people in similar ways as the churches many Gen-Xers left behind.
The Critics Jumped the Shark
At least in my own tradition I believe the most vocal critics of the EC helped to kill the movement, not by defeating it, but by naming everything and everyone they didn’t like as part of the EC. If everyone and everything is emerging then no one and nothing is emerging. It was clear to me that when someone like Dallas Willard started getting labeled by the critics as “emerging” that the critics had officially jumped the shark and that the term had essentially become meaningless.
Fear is an amazing tool to use for rallying people together. Some of the blog critics have learned the politics of labeling and de-contextualization well from the world. What conservative fear-pundits did to Shirley Sherrod has been done for the last couple of years and is still being done on a regular basis on “concerned” blogs each day. But it is my sense that most people are starting to catch on and are growing tired of the extreme rhetoric.
I think what some of the critics have failed to realize is that even the average Christian person is discerning enough to know that one doesn’t have to agree with everything a person says in order to receive something helpful from them. For example, although I am a Protestant one of my spiritual heroes remains St. Francis of Assisi. I’m not Reformed, but I find Calvin’s Commentaries and C.S. Lewis’ writings very helpful. I’m not Lutheran, but Jurgen Moltmann has been highly influential for me theologically. There are parts of The Purpose Driven Life that I strongly disagree with, but I’m glad to call Rick Warren a friend and I will find any way I can to partner with him in many of the great causes he is leading in Jesus’ name. I am a card-carrying Wesleyan, but some of the things John Wesley did, said, and believed were simply nuts. The only person I’ve read that I agreed with at every point is Jesus. The broad brush with which many of the critics use the label “emerging” has not only made the word meaningless but it shows a lack of faith on the part of the faithful to be discerning in the light of Christ.
It has certainly been no fun to be a target of the most vocal “concerned” critics. Although I have repeatedly resisted the label “emerging,” and have openly expressed my concerns about the EC, I have been painted by some with that label for refusing to take an all or nothing stance with the EC. I have certainly found the targeting painful and have found my attempts at discussion with the most vocal critics completely unfruitful. If someone as thoughtful and insightful as Dan Boone couldn’t make any headway with them, I don’t know what I was thinking… Nevertheless, I have found the only thing worse than being a target of their concerns is to have them become one’s advocate. As I think a church leader friend of mine recently found out, the only thing worse than being their enemy is to be their friend. Another friend sent me a very helpful article on “pathological antagonists” that was an enormous blessing. It helped me realize it is easy to become someone’s enemy if that person’s existence is defined by the need to have enemies.
The Global Church
As compassionate as it has attempted to be with other cultures, the EC could never get past the fact that its leaders (and most of its followers) are white, middle-class, and highly educated. The new reality that the Church of Jesus Christ has to wrestle with is not that all the ways that it is postmodern, post-liberal, or any other “post,” but the fact that it is global. I am excited to be a delegate to the Laussane 3 Conference on Global Evangelism being held in Cape Town in October. I am both excited and anxious to hear the questions of the global community of faith.
I still believe much of what I wrote a year ago about the church’s need to listen to some of what the EC leaders were saying at the time. For example, I still think we need multiple ways of understanding the cross of Christ; not just as a substitution for sin’s penalty but also as the call to discipleship and the victory of Jesus over patterns of sin and violence. I think we need the optimism of grace and a better eschatology that includes the redemption of all of creation. I think we need to stand on the Truth of the Christian faith but hold it with the humility of those who see through a glass darkly. I think we need to react against the political co-opting of the American church that has largely taken place. (When people tell me they would become a Christian if they didn’t have to become a Republican, you know something has gone wrong). And I still believe we need to seek first the kingdom of God and live within the present reality of God’s reign.
These were all aspects of the EC conversation but they certainly aren’t exclusive to the EC. In many ways they have been part of the various reforming movements of the Church throughout its history. That is the part that we all must understand about the Church. It is reformed and always reforming. I think that the most ungracious critics of any movement that comes along, like the EC, want to point to a time of purity of faith, belief, and practice and make it the standard from which there can be no deviations. I’m not sure when that time of perfection would have been for not even the NT church falls in that category. They were a mess too. The church is reformed and always reforming. The EC movement stimulated conversation for a time and may have enacted some reforms both in favor of and in reaction to its leadership. But the kingdom of God goes on and we are ready for the Spirit’s next reforming.