You’ve asked me what is one of the most commonly asked questions about the emerging movement, but the way you ask about it is both funny and typical. You said: “I tell everyone I’m an ‘emerging’ Christian but what (I’m afraid to say I don’t know) are we emerging from? Whenever someone asks me this, I brush it off. But I’d like to know your opinion what we are emerging out of since several of my friends claim you make emerging church stuff an area of study.”
Lots of Baptists, Matt, don’t have the foggiest idea of why they are Baptists; Episcopalians don’t know why they have that name; Presbyterians don’t know what their name stands for — but you can be sure the Pentecostals know why they are called Pentecostals. I could go on about names and that some know what they mean and that others don’t.
Know this: there’s always something very important to names like “emerging,” so if you are going to call yourself an “emerging Christian,” I think it’s a jolly good idea you stop and get this term under your grips.
Let me say what I think “emerging” means from two angles:
First, we are emerging into how we think the Church should be in the future. We use emerging it refers to the direction we are moving. We want to be the kind of Christians that speak the gospel in our world in such a way that it cuts into the fabric of sin and constructs a way of life that is fully consistent with the way Jesus calls us to live. Since we think culture is changing, we want to understand that culture and both connect to it and critique it. So we are seeking to be Christians in our day — and that means in the postmodern era. If you’d like to read a pleasant (and brief) description, I suggest John Caputo, Philosophy and Theology. If you want a little longer book, J. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
We believe that there is truth to the claim that we are now in a postmodern era. We think that postmodernity is changing the current generation — in how it understands truth or (the best way of saying this) our articulation of the truth of the gospel, in how we relate to one another in the world, and in the weakening of the grip of the Western culture’s belief that scientific knowledge tells the whole truth.
That’s the into part.
Second, we think “emerging” relates to moving from where we’ve been, and frankly for must of us (though not all) where we’ve been is conservative evangelicalism. It is not that we have all (some have) abandoned that evangelicalism, but we think that shifts and adjustments are necessary to that traditional expression of our faith in order to ltrust, live and speak the truth of the gospel to the current generation. A way of saying this, though I’m not sure our conservative critics like to hear this, is that we want to do for your generation what our fathers and mothers did for our generation.
It is also my hope that we are emerging from the disunity of the Church, the fracturing of the Church into all kinds of splinter groups. Most of these Christians really do believe the same gospel but can’t get along for what is sometimes not all that important of reasons. So I hope we can emerge from the tribal mentality that has too often characterized Christianity
And lots of us think we need to emerge from the power structures of our past. Matt, this is odd to say, but my generation is the hippie generation; we fought hard to democratize church members and perhaps our most notable achievement came through a California preacher named Ray Stedman, who wrote a book called Body Life. The teachings we find in our churches today about spiritual gifts came from Stedman. (It wasn’t even talked about him much until he put it right back in the church.) Now, Stedman got the Church to live like a “body.” The problem is that my generation got tired of the effort to live like a body, and gave all the power back to the leaders. Maybe there’s a social cycle in this, but one thing is for sure: emergence wants to renew the democratization process. It’s fun to see how this is happening all over the place — from house churches and simple churches to smaller missional and emergent gatherings. (Again I could go on.)
All of this means we want to get together on the basics of the gospel, the basics of our creedal faith, and on the basis of a life devoted to following Jesus — and do all these as a community, regardless of “who” we are.
Above all, though, we are working at seeing “what will happen next.” In other words, one can’t predict emergence; one participates in emergence. And we are watching some grassroots shifts in gospel living begin to take shape in all sorts of ways — in how we do church, in how we preach, in how we evangelize, in how we organize our gatherings and “services,” in how we related to the State, in how we participate in capitalism and wealth and possessions … I could go on.
Let me finish with a quotation from a leader in the emerging movement, Andrew Jones — known as Tall Skinny Kiwi. (By the way, if you don’t know of his site, please add him to your daily reads; he’s got his finger on international emergence.)
TSK: Emergent is …the phenomena of how new organizational structures progress from low-level chaos to higher level sophistication without a hierarchical command structure.
Letter to an Emerging Christian