The emerging church is back?

Remember a few years ago when lots of reporters were talking about the emerging church as if it was the new trend was sweeping the nation? You know how people are still talking about it now? Yeah, me neither. It was such a nebulous “movement” to begin with, but apparently New York magazine just discovered it.

Alex Morris’ glowing profile of Jay Bakker paints the young pastor as some hip leader of something, though it’s hard to tell what that is. Bakker is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye (Jim resigned from his ministry after an affair, and accounting fraud led to imprisonment and later divorce). You can check out the beginning of the piece, and then I’ll pull out a few choice passages.

He’s thinking about just how much RELIGION DESTROYS, as a tattoo close to his armpit reads, and how seriously, seriously [f***ed] up that is. He’s thinking, too, about Revolution, the church-cum-religious movement he helms, part of which is unfolding right now, whether or not the Williamsburg waifs who’ve packed themselves into the dark concert hall realize it.

Eloquent writing, you’ll see. I have not read anything by Bakker and have no interest in critiquing him as a pastor, writer, thinker, whatever. My interest is in whether this reporter actually journalistically proved his thesis, that Bakker is somehow leading a movement.

In a manner that borders on proselytizing, Bakker, an Evangelical Christian, has mounted a multifaceted attack on the Christian Establishment. In addition to his Brooklyn ministry, he travels regularly to churches and festivals, appears on television news, and has a large online following (his Twitter feed has over 4,000 followers). Both because of his lineage and his strong language, he has become an unofficial spokesman for a growing group of young, disaffected Evangelicals attempting to splinter from the mainstream church–and call it to task in the process.

This paragraph seems to serve as the motivation for the piece. But the thing is, anybody can travel to churches and festivals, television news and have an online following. Is 4,000 Twitter followers really considered a lot? Who crowned him spokesperson?

In praise of the piece, we do get a lot of interesting background about Bakker’s life. We get a sense of what it must have been like to grow up on television and then have all of that stripped away by someone else’s choices. However, the piece takes a while before we start to read what he actually, you know, believes.

Bakker’s real rebellion has been against mainstream Christianity, which he doesn’t think has much to say about forgiveness. He was 20 when he entered AA (“I’ve never had a legal drink”), and his theology has certainly been shaped by the program: He now says he drank in part to get over his guilt about drinking, a stranglehold that was released once he came to realize that “God loved me no matter what.” This experience led him to resent Christian legalism, the dos and don’ts that are so much a part of modern faith, and this sent him to the Bible. “I started reading the Bible for myself for the first time,” he says, “and I was just blown away by it. All the stuff I’d been taught my whole life didn’t seem to be adding up to what’s in the Bible.”

The author uses the phrase mainstream Christianity or mainstream church, but it’s unclear what he means. Is there really a mainstream Christianity or church, especially in the Protestant tradition? Does Bakker believe that his parents were in the mainstream of Christianity? Despite numbers, do televangelists actually represent “mainstream” churches? Aren’t they somewhat eccentric by their nature?

The rest of Protestant Christianity, however, he’s basically prepared to ditch–a stance that pushes him beyond the far liberal wing of the Evangelical Christian community and into what is known as the “Emergent” ministry.

The Emergent movement is not an organized force in American theology; most of its members would probably dispute being members of anything. But it is a way of referring to a growing number of churches and ministers–like the Void collective in Waco, Texas, and the theologian Brian McLaren–who attack the fundamentals of fundamentalism. They tend to be pro-choice and support gay marriage, and they don’t fret over premarital sex. They welcome atheists and embrace doubt. They like to read Nietzsche during services.

Just so we’re clear, the “emergent movement” really is not a new concept. In fact, there’s been discussion about its decline or death. In his 4,000+ piece, the author briefly quotes one person who has theological concerns with Bakker’s ideas and then quickly cites stories from Bakker about mistreatment he’s experienced.

“I think a movement founded on rebellion is going to collapse under the weight of its own moralism,” says the Evangelical writer Ted Kluck, who accuses Revolution of substituting the arrogance of the traditional church with its own. To others, Bakker is not moral enough: He is engaging in “cafeteria Christianity,” picking only the parts of the faith that suit him. By focusing on grace, he is absolving sinners. He’s been threatened physically at speaking engagements and been told he’s leading people to hell. But Bakker speaks like a true believer. “Another type of reformation is happening,” he says. “And when a reformation is happening, the reformers aren’t recognized as reformers. They’re seen as heretics.”

The author gives a vague description of where he personally stands religiously, something in between a believer and a doubter. Though it’s unclear what he believes or what he doubts, except a little bit of both when it comes to Bakker.

Over a six-pack of Diet Coke and between a number of cigarettes smoked on the fire escape, we go verse by verse through the tomes, picking through some of the key issues that rankle or rally modern-day Christians: homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, women’s rights, marriage, divorce, Heaven and hell.

Since when do these issues necessarily become THE dividing or rallying points for Christians? Yes, these issues are hot politically. But are Christians really dividing over premarital sex and women’s rights? What about things like baptism, church hierarchy, tradition, music? You know, the things can make entire denominations set apart from one another? For instance, I’ve never seen a church form in favor of premarital sex or divorce.

Finally, here’s the author’s takeaway:

It’s hard not to respect someone who won’t abandon the church even as it tries to abandon him, and who aggressively searches for truth without claiming that he owns it. Still, while Bakker and Anderson have the sympathy and attention of their audience, I can sense parishioners trying to work out what they think of Revolution. Once you strip so much out of Christianity, what is left? How do you agree with a church that is still figuring out its message?

But as I’m sitting there, close to the back and beer in hand, it occurs to me that maybe the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. Maybe the opposite of faith is certainty, a comforting belief in your own rightness. [His parents had] a theology of aspiration–believing is easy, and believing leads to success–and it didn’t encourage its followers to doubt their faith or themselves. This, it seems to me, is what Jay is offering: a Christianity that allows for, and is even sustained by, failure.

And there you have it. That is what makes Bakker edgy to this writer. Coincidentally, the profile might help Bakker sell his book coming out in January. Unfortunately, this piece felt like a rehashing of someone’s memoir, and that was already done.

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  • James

    One would think that by now, journalists would strive to find “something new” rather than quoting phrases by guys with distinctive facial hair which seem to anyone who’s somewhat acquainted with this ageing phenomenon as simply reworded versions of the same soundbytes.

    A good question is, “what is emerging here, and how does it compare to things which previously emerged?”, in a significant counter-cultural (or more specifically, counter-religious-cultural) manner?

    I nominate Billy Sunday as proto-emergent par excellence. A few points to consider:

    - Pronounced “edginess”: Note how his sermon on amusements was called “the rawest thing ever put over in Syracuse,” protested by a leading liberal pastor at the time for its having been preached “to mixed audience of men and women, boys and girls.” Try this on for size as emergent rhetoric (from the sermon Booze, itself a lovely, monosyllabic, shocking title for a sermon):

    Then the fellows that kept the hogs went back to town and told the peanut-brained, weasel-eyed, hog-jowled, beetle-browed, bull-necked lobsters that owned the hogs, that “a long-haired fanatic from Nazareth, named Jesus, has driven the devils out of some men and the devils have gone into the hogs, and the hogs into the sea, and the sea into the hogs, and the whole bunch is dead.”

    - Quirky pulpit behavior: gyrating, running all over the stage, standing on the pulpit, smashing chairs, etc. etc.. – proto-rock-star behavior.

    - Profound criticism of status quo churches and religious practices

    - Overturning of societal expectations regarding religious leaders: Sunday came from the very secular world of being a celebrity baseball player with the Chicago Cubs, moving from the realm of the highly secular to become a leader of the sacred. Though this is now common, it may have been quite a shock for a public that tended to view clergy vocations as life-long, with the expectation of lifelong personal holiness. In doing so, Sunday paved the way for a new understanding of spiritual vocation and serving God.

    With his comfortableness with the secular world, Sunday was not adverse to promoting his religious meetings with baseball games, or engaging the secular idiom by doing such things as hiring a circus giant as an usher.

    - Setting new standards for ecumenism: those who filled out cards requesting further spiritual care designated the type of church from which they desired such spiritual care – and these cards were respectfully delivered to churches of the designated denominations – including Catholic churches. At the time, separation of denominations was prominent and this practice was rather unheard of.

    - What perhaps fits the bill more than any of the above: an extraordinarily savvy understanding of prevailing culture, from which he was able to find a platform based on good showmanship, delivering the general feeling and expectation that “something profoundly different” was taking place, that God was working in “a new way” – predominantly working with established cultural idioms, without being particularly intellectually stimulating or at all innovative in theology and Biblical hermeneutics. Sunday delivered the same old message with an atmosphere more akin to the baseball pitch than the stone chapel; in the idiom of hotdog vendors, rather than seminarians.

    Today’s emergents do the same, except with short, energetic phrases and personal appearances reminiscent of rock star gurus. Means by which they theologically distinguish themselves from others seem to me quite dated on the intellectual scene; I would think that most familiar with the history of Christianity have a feeling of déja-vu in reading about such differences, minus the new constellation of habits in addressing the public, sartorial choice, and general demeanour.

  • Justin

    “They tend to be pro-choice and support gay marriage, and they don’t fret over premarital sex.”

    Really? From what I could tell about Emergent groups, they were mixed on all of these at best — and gave intentionally confusing, grandiose answers to all of these issues to obfuscate the answer at worst.

    Seriously, I remember when it was the never-ending conversation on if they were “emergent” “emerging” or “Emergent Church” or “post-modern.” It was like guys on college radio arguing if a band was “alternative,” or “indie” or “post-electronic folk.” Just play the CD already.

    And the only people I hear talking about the Emergent Church these days are people with blogs and talk shows who warn people about Brian McLaren. Few others seem to take note anymore.

  • Ryan

    Wow this is like a tech journalist writing about the ipod as a revolutionary new device that will sweep the nation.

    Honestly, the Emergent church and its leaders were always much more successful at getting headlines and book deals than actually planting churches, or starting movements. At a certain point doesn’t the media bear some type of responsibility to report on things in a context that reflects that actual level of influence? I would often read glowing editorials of major emergent leaders in big newspapers and magazines, and then talk to people at my seminary about them and they would have never heard of them. It was such a major disconnect.

  • john

    And conservatives don’t pick and choose what scripture they accept?

  • Mike Hickerson

    It’s hard not to respect someone who won’t abandon the church even as it tries to abandon him…

    What “church” is Morris talking about here? According to Revolution’s website, Bakker pastors a church that he founded himself when he was 19. As far as I can tell, Revolution isn’t connected to any denomination or church network, and Bakker hasn’t been ordained by any church bodies or educated at any college or seminary. None of that should be considered a judgment on Bakker’s ministry (plenty of good work has been done by independent churches and ministers without formal education), but it’s strange to portray Bakker as someone who “won’t abandon the church.” When has Bakker shown a commitment to churches other than his own?

  • p

    Two Chesterton Quotes came to mind when I read this:

    “We do not want a religion that is right where we are right –
    we want a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

    “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”

  • K.W. Leslie

    You stated, “I’ve never seen a church form in favor of premarital sex or divorce.” I have. You see, a former pastor of mine had his ministerial credentials removed by our denomination (the Assemblies of God) because of his adultery and subsequent divorce. So he, and a certain number of folks from his church who thought the AG was being too strict, legalistic, or harsh, started a new church.

    They weren’t pro-divorce so much as they were pro-pastor. But yeah: some of those political hot buttons can indeed divide churches. Maybe not as the stated reason for church splits, but certainly as the underlying reason.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Some great comments. Love this one:

    Wow this is like a tech journalist writing about the ipod as a revolutionary new device that will sweep the nation.

    Just a reminder to others that this is not where your air your concerns about Bakker, the emerging church, whatever. We’re discussing journalism.

  • Jerry

    Remember a few years ago when lots of reporters were talking about the emerging church as if it was the new trend was sweeping the nation? You know how people are still talking about it now? Yeah, me neither…

    Just so we’re clear, the “emergent movement” really is not a new concept.

    Sarah, mostly I agree with your review but have a quibble about your assertion that it’s basically dead. Your two references are to the group that had that name and that the word emergent has come to mean so many things (like evangelical). Neither of those state that the exploration of what it means to be Christian which falls under what is called emergent has stopped. I invite you to look at the results of a google news search on that phrase

    The fact that people ignore something does not mean it does not exist. What I think happened is the typical media overreaction. The “emerging church” was over-hyped and turned into a “15 minute” sensation. The generational change in what it means to be a real Christian and what a church really is continues to go on mostly quietly often without the label emergent. I like the wikipedia article which includes background including the lengthy history you mentioned.

  • Julia

    Is 4,000 Twitter followers really considered a lot? Who crowned him spokesperson?

    My son has 8,168 following him on Twitter and, to date, nobody in the press is calling him the leader of anything.

    This reminds me of the break-away ex-Catholics in Belgium.

    I thought the current edginess in Christianity was the “intentional” Christians, whatever that is.

  • Dave

    At the risk of seeming to try armchair psychoanalysis of the profession, I think the Emergent Church meme manifests in print because liberal reporters want a movement of liberal evangelicals who are just as assertive in their liberalism as their counterparts are in their conservatism. Some of you have complained in the past that the press seems to want the Roman Catholic Church to become a second Episcopal Church; this would be the same thing in the Protestant flavor.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, I wasn’t personally suggesting it was dead, but saying there was discussion about that. I was using it to support that idea that it’s not really new anymore. I hope that makes more sense.

  • Phil Hawkins

    The term “Emerging Church” has been around longer than most realize, possibly longer than that reporter and definitely longer than Jay Bakker. It goes back at least to 1970 or ’71, when a book titled “The Emerging Church” came out (I used to have that book, and could have been considered part of the EC of that day). Wish I could remember the authors.

    Possible factual error: It may be a stretch to label Brian Maclaren a “theologian” if meaning in the usual sense. Brian has written some books, but he is a local pastor (successful) and was previously a college professor (English, if I remember correctly). I have read some of his books and found some good things, and some things less good.

  • GhaleonQ

    Ugh. This is easy pickings, but it seems like Bakker attracts the same writing wherever he goes. New York Magazine can do well with less sophisticated objects, but this post really captures why they should work harder on religion.

  • Julia

    Perhaps New York Magazine is interested in him because it gives them a chance to again write about Jim Bakker and his mistress and Tammy Fay with her runnning mascara.

  • bob

    This is something like a news article pointing out that you can make a vestment out of burlap with felt cut-out hands glued to it. Sometimes there’s a little bit of paper left and nothing to print, and something this long fits. Like this comment, you know?

  • Yamada Katsushiro

    Hey Sarah,

    Please help me out… I have gone through book after book of Dan Kimball, Phillip Newall, and others. I have been on literally dozens of Emerging worship sights and I cannot find some key things that any organized group should have…

    1. A list and explanations of your beliefs.

    2. A list of founders/leaders. (Kimball helped me a little, but did not mention any founders.)

    3. And what is was initially like. You know the History of this movement.

    If you can answer any or all of these, please, throw me a rope.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I’m not sure I’m the best person. You might check this article out

    It’s such a fluid movement that those questions might be hard to pin down.