Wild Goose, Big Tent, Soularize…and I am sure there have been many others. Since at least the mid-1990s, these gatherings of Emergent Christians all over the country have been deconstructing Christianity from a largely post-evangelical perspective, and then reconstructing more inclusive, progressive faith communities that incorporate traditional and fresh ways to praise God.
As an Episcopalian, I came to the Emergent Church movement late in the game. In December 2009 I was the first lay delegate from the newly formed St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church in La Crescenta, CA to that year’s diocesan convention in Riverside, California. It was there that I had the privilege of hearing Brian McLaren for the first time. I exhaled, and said “It’s about time!” That is, it’s about time more evangelicals came out of their conservative closet and joined progressive Christians uniting for social justice, acknowledging the dignity of all human beings. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church is no stranger to progressive Christianity.
But what we were a stranger to was an evangelical expression of worship and praise in community. I was raised in the largest Episcopal church west of the Mississippi, and the most exciting that church service ever got was in the late 1970’s when the rock mass was introduced as an alternative to stern classical choral church music. When I finally succumbed to God’s call on my life, I so wanted to find a place at the evangelical table where the Holy Spirit moved me to tears when I sang along with the praise and worship team, lifting my eyes and arms to God. But I couldn’t wrap my heart around a conservative agenda that said homosexuality was a sin, as was a woman’s right to choose. So I wandered around churchless until finally discovering St. Luke’s in Los Angeles, with the Rev. Bryan Jones as its vicar.
Bryan had a different vision for St. Luke’s. He had read McLaren and had also spent an evening with him after hearing him speak at the diocesan convention. They discussed church plants, the Emergent Church movement, and contemporary ways to worship within the historical traditions of the Episcopal church. Then Bryan brought these fresh ideas to St. Luke’s. With less then 20 parishioners at the church, our first study group read The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, our worship committee retired the organ, and Bryan hired musicians that made up our worship band. We also utilized the projectors installed by the old congregation to project images that related to the gospel reading of the day.
So it wasn’t a big surprise when I told Bryan, my boss and mentor, that I was going to the tenth anniversary meeting of Soularize in San Diego led by Spencer Burke. Soularize was a three day event that brought people together from the Emergent movement from all over the country to talk about theology, where the church is now, and where it might be going. I was looking forward to hearing from Peter Rollins, Philip Clayton, Monica Coleman, John Caputo, and Rita Nakashima Brock.
I had a great time. I got to hang out and converse with Peter Rollins. Rita Nakashima Brock gave an amazing presentation on the subject of her book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, and in a breakout session with Monica Coleman we formulated a theology around world hunger.
Spencer Burke, our host for the three day event, made it clear that he was retiring Soularize; the movement had done enough deconstructing and conversing, and it was now time to act. He wasn’t sure in what form that re-construction would take place, but he was confident that something new and exciting was already growing.
Soularize was held at Missiongathering Church in urban North Park in San Diego and their mission statement communicates the essence of the Emergent movement perfectly:
Missiongathering Church started with several young adults from the San Diego area who were disenchanted with the institutional church. From our initial beginnings, our group of friends and spiritual seekers began to use words like open, organic, emergent, fluid, and ever-evolving to describe our community. Our gathering of restless spiritual wanderers became a safe haven for Christian spirituality as opposed to religious institutionalism and created a new expression of God’s grace and Christianity in a post-Christian era.
I have great respect for those within the Emergent Church movement. They have cut the umbilical cord from their mainstream parents and ventured off on their own to re-create the community of Christ in a way that nourishes them and serves the people around them. Certainly liberationist, feminist, womanist and other theologians cut the cord decades before, de-constructing and re-constructing Christianity in a way that was empowering to them. For some of us our ‘aha!’ moment came a long time ago. I am just really glad that this group of “open, organic, emergent, fluid, and ever-evolving” post-evangelical Christians finally had theirs. Welcome to the party!