What’s Emerging in the Church?

“What is Emerging in the Church?” A synchroblog post by Bruce Epperly

Emerging spirituality is a process, not a thing; a liquid, not a solid; a movement, not a destination.  Defining it is as difficult as catching the wind as it blows.  As I ponder today’s emerging church, I am reminded of the dynamic spirit-movement described in the New Testament adventure story, Acts of the Apostles.  No one knew what would happen next.  But, the Spirit was moving.  She was moving in ways that none of the first men and women who followed the Way of Jesus could quite fathom or control, and so they went along for the ride, often not knowing where they were going.  Soon they discovered that stability was an illusion. Yes, there was tradition, the faith of the Hebraic people, and the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle and it was good; but tradition was constantly being turned around and around like a kaleidoscope, revealing something new about God’s Spirit with every turn.  Take a moment think about Pentecost, alive with fire and wind; Philip encountering the Ethiopian eunuch and then being whisked away to the next adventure; Peter’s dream of a smorgasbord piled high with unclean food; Paul’s journey-changing vision of a Macedonian; sermons in Athens; and earth-shaking liberation from prison.  And there were other stories, stories of women, who provided hospitality, but whose own mysticism and healing touch were omitted from the final text.  Perhaps, these Wayfarers shook their heads and asked themselves, “what will happen next?” after selling their possessions, or feeling God’s touch in the embrace of an outsider.

My sense is that those first followers of Jesus were “making up as they went along,” guided by the Spirit, who called them to be innovative, inventive, and agile.  There was no orthodoxy yet, and I suspect the final written text of Acts presents a uniformity that was more ideal than actual. There were disagreements and contrasting viewpoints, but no heresy hunting, because the moment you pinned down the Spirit by doctrinal certainty, a gust of wind reminded you that the breath of the Spirit was untamed, always more than we can imagine.  The first people of the Way were called beyond the familiar in order to discover God in unfamiliar, but powerful and adventurous, ways.  Healings and visionary experiences abounded, and guided them step by step on God’s holy adventure.  And, as Acts of the Apostles proclaims, the gospel spread “unhindered” – unhindered by culture, tongue, age, gender, education, theological correctness, and sexual identity (note, the Ethiopian eunuch).

Today, many of us are also making it up as we go along.  We can’t quite be pinned down in traditional ways, nor do we believe that God wants us to stay put theologically, spiritually, or relationally.  Many of us, like young Jesus in the Temple, are being stretched by new ideas and new ways of doing things as we seek to “grow in wisdom and stature.”  One of my teachers, Bernard Loomer, described “size” as a primary religious virtue.  Size, or stature, relates to how much of reality in its concreteness and diversity we can embrace without losing our spiritual center, even when the center is constantly moving.  Still, if God is omnipresent, we are always at the center, regardless of how the Spirit moves us; and what’s more, everyone else is also at the center.  Emerging spirituality is about largeness of spirit; contrast rather than opposition; reconciling opposites in a larger creative and dynamic synthesis.

Today, many of us who see our faith as emerging are profoundly eclectic or syncretic in our spirituality.  We want a large-souled spirituality. And so, we may go to church on Sunday, but practice Buddhist meditation, do Tai Chi or Qi Gung during the week; attend a liturgical healing services, complete with anointing and laying on of hands, but also practice reiki healing touch as a way of praying with our hands; we may pray in Jesus’ name but also find wisdom in AfricanYoruba and Kemetic spirituality, Celtic pilgrimages, Taoism, and Native American prayer.  We find Christ’s Creative Wisdom and discover the Breath of Life in all these paths.  We call ourselves Christians but see faith as a process, a verb, a pathway, and not a settled place.

Years ago, a theologian used the term “designer religion” as a way of putting down the eclectic spiritual practices of 21st century seekers.  In contrast, I believe that Christians are called to design their faith, just as those first followers of the Way of Jesus made it up as they went along.  This is what it means to have a personal relationship to a personal and evolving God.  As a progressive Christian, influenced by process theology, I feel comfortable practicing Quaker meditation, keeping company with Pentecostals, and joining in with an “Amen” or “Hallelujah” at a gospel service.  I expect surprises and synchronous encounters, pray for healing, practice reiki, and read the bible every day.

Emerging spirituality is not about unmoved orthodoxy, but the life-giving quest to experience the many faces of God, trusting that just as Jesus addressed each person uniquely, God addresses us in unique and creative ways.  But, more than that, God can be experienced right now in ways that bring healing and wholeness and inspire mission.  Emerging spirituality calls us to heal the Christian faith so that we can be people on a mission, a mission to heal the earth, embodied in the person right beside you as well as in polar bears on ice floes.

Emerging spirituality believes that God calls us to be creative, to color outside the lines, to surprise ourselves and perhaps God by our adventurous actions.  Unlike Rick Warren’s divine playwright, who chooses all the important events of our lives without our input, and demands that we read the lines without improvisation, the emerging God invites us to be creative partners in the world adventure.  Emerging spirituality is about holy relationship with the good earth, with humankind in all its diversity, and with God, who is also making up as God goes along.  The future is still open for a spirit-centered Christianity and for fragile emerging spiritual movements; and perhaps the future is open for God as well.  Perhaps, God is calling us to become part of God’s own adventure, asking us to be partners in healing the earth and bringing beauty to one another.  After all, who knows what will emerge in this lively and creative adventure of the Spirit?

  • Jonnathan

    Don’t be a fool. God is not ‘emerging’. He already IS and wants us to have settled faith in many doctrinal points. Just because we should be aware of the complexity of modernity and react in love towards the people living in it, doesn’t mean we throw open the doors of our reason to every wind of doctrine; in fact, that’s sort of something the early church was consistently warned about. Nice try, but go back to square one and listen to Jesus, not the world and its religions.


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