The Living Emerging Movement

Thumbnail image for PhilClayton.jpgThere are a number of approaches to talking about the emergent church or, as I have preferred to talk — emerging movement and emergent village/church, and the two favorite approaches are to say: it’s dead or it’s undefinable. About four years ago I was asked the “Whither Emergent?” question: Where was emerging headed? 

At the time I suggested three things: some emerging Christians will become mainline liberals (or progressives as many prefer to be called now), some will retreat a bit by assuming their old seats in evangelical churches, and others will continue to impact the evangelical movement in a missional or expansive, robust gospel direction. I don’t have numbers, but that’s probably about right, but I’ve since realized that there really weren’t that many other options. Anyway, I’m not into futurism or prophesying.
One thing is very, very clear now: many in the emerging movement, and especially many in what I preferred to call the “emergent” crowd, have taken up solid stances in the American mainline churches. You will probably find folks like Brian McLaren and Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt and Phyllis Tickle more often among the mainline crowd than among evangelicals. It can be said that emergent’s biggest influence is probably right now more with the mainline than anywhere else — except to offer two caveats: (1) many evangelicals who have emerging sympathies were worn down by the progressive direction of others and just dropped the label and are still emerging while (2) many other emerging folks are creative and living in the cracks of the mainline-evangelical divide but really don’t have a central organization right now for some kind of overt identification. I could be wrong, but this is what I’m seeing and sensing.
Which leads me to my point: Philip Clayton’s new book, Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society
, is nothing if it is not the fully skinny on progressive, mainline-shaped emergent theology. If Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy
mapped the frustration and ambivalences of many emergent thinkers and wonderers, Clayton’s book maps the terrain and the direction of the same.

Clayton argues that theology has been the prerogative an elite group of professors, but he believes it’s got to be seen as what all of us do instead of just what the professors and professionals do. He outlines what can only be called a progressive emergent agenda for doing theology in a series of proposals — too many to name here. It’s a good book and I hope it gets a wide hearing. Thus, his emphases are:

Belonging, behaving, believing
Change is important and inevitable
Big Tent theology doesn’t have to be divisive
Theology creates story and it leads to action
Activism is shaped by theology
Church ministries are sliding into missional churches
But what struck me about Clayton’s book, and it struck me because I thought it was noticeably old-fashioned and at the same time not completely in sync with the central themes of the book itself, was the six questions of theology he thinks that folks are asking and need to ask:
1. Who is God?
2. Who is Jesus, called the Christ?
3. Who is the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit?
4. What is humanity? 
5. What is the problem of sin, and what does salvation mean?
6. What is the nature and function of the church?
7. What is the future in which we hope and for which we long?
Well, as I read this, I thought — straight out of the old categories of theological textbooks. Surprised me.
And what I found mission was a Jesus-shaped core to those questions, a Jesus whose kingdom vision was reshaping all theological questions: And Philip’s book is shaped more by that set of categories than those six. So, I wonder if the first question isn’t “What is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom?” and how does that question re-shape the whole?
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  • Thanks for the review Scot. I agree that Philip’s intention was to inextricably tie answering the big theological questions to the mission of God. This is itself a threat to many forms of ‘progressive’ theology because it assumes God has a mission greater than our social platform!

  • Scot, I thought this was a great read as well. The book puts flesh and blood on my hope that, as a result of the ’emerging’ movement (which I think is simply an inevitable cultural shift), the liberal mainline and conservative evangelical churches will, in the future, meet somewhere in the middle. Certainly the book was written to a mainline audience, and so that is the language that is used, but there could be a similar call to the conservative evangelical crowd.
    As far as the lack of ‘Jesus-shaped core to the questions’, I think that core is there, in fact. I’m in the process of building up a volunteer youth outreach team in a mainline context. We’ve been going through these questions each week, and we always end up talking about Jesus in relation to each question. I think that’s because when people get their juices flowing, and the Holy Spirit is moving in their heart and mind, they realise that this is all about Jesus. Maybe that’s too charitable a perspective on the average mainline liberal churchgoer, but until I’m proven wrong, I’ll continue asking these questions.

  • dopderbeck

    Matt (#2) said: my hope that, as a result of the ’emerging’ movement (which I think is simply an inevitable cultural shift), the liberal mainline and conservative evangelical churches will, in the future, meet somewhere in the middle.
    I respond: Amen. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well. But as Scot notes: where is the institutional structure to support this middle ground? Six or seven years ago, it seemed like “emerging” could provide it. Now that seems to have gone by the boards. Sigh.

  • Ben Hammond

    @dopderbeck #3
    Does there need to be an institutional structure to support it? It seems like a common desire for brother and sisterhood on all sides is a good start, and that doesn’t require any kind of institution. At my church people fairly regularly are sarcastic or poke fun at Catholics (many of them come from that background… or just grew up in a Christian culture hostile to Catholicism – and the ones that come from an evangelical background I don’t let them complain or make fun of Catholics around me). Being very specific about a specific group of Christians, it seems the first shift that should happen at my church is that the negative attitude stops, then the next step is to become more charitable, then more generous, then, etc.
    Changes also have to happen in the places where ministry leaders are educated.

  • ‘Where is the institutional structure to support this middle ground? Six or seven years ago, it seemed like “emerging” could provide it. Now that seems to have gone by the boards. Sigh.’
    To be honest, as someone who has been within the emerging movement on both the liberal and conservative ends, I don’t think that’s a question the emerging movement, on the outset, is trying to answer. Certainly everyone within emerging circles is looking for new ways of being church, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that they’re looking for new ways of organising into institutional networks.
    But I agree that there is a lack of institutional support for people within the emerging movement. However, I think that’s what Dr. Clayton is trying to address in his book: Do we need new institutions? Or can we revive, in new ways, our modern institutions such that they begin to meet our missional needs. And I think the answer to that question lies with the answer to this question: Where is the Holy Spirit leading us, as followers of Jesus?

  • EricG

    I attended evangelical churches for 35 years of my life, but found that I couldn’t in good conscience keep attending because of the culture war mentality, opposition to science, and insistence that any members agree to things like strict views on inerrancy. I interviewed pastors of numerous evangelical churches in my area trying to see if we could be comfortable with each other, and it just wouldn’t work; I could never become a member based on their requirements. Those are some of the same issues I think that motivates some other emerging-type folks.
    I made the switch to a “liberal” mainline (PCUSA) church 1 1/2 years ago, only to learn that the church wasn’t nearly as liberal as evangelicals have been saying. The authority of scripture is taken seriously. The resurrection is viewed as a historical event that shapes church mission. Spiritial disciplines are practiced and considered essential.
    Although I realize that there are indeed very liberal mainliners out there, I think evangelicals tend to view the mainline as too much of a block. I think there is already an institutional middle ground out there, and it makes sense for many emerging or emergent folks to move mainline.

  • BrianH

    The question of institutional support is an interesting one to me.
    I pastor a church connected with a denomination that is not (imho) missional or emergent on the whole. Yet I have been journeying for years with a group of clergy (and institutional leaders) who encourage and challenge each other to stay focused on the question of what it means to follow Jesus into the mission of God in this world in a missional sense.
    At the same time, I have also been linked with similarly minded folks from my own hometown, connections that cross denominational and ministry model lines.
    My point being that in my experience, the support structures of the emergent movement may be forming not on a national or global level, but clustered around groups of people within and across denominational lines that share a passion for living and ministering in a new way. When we look farther out (nationally, globally) we find mission partners in a way that almost resembles how Facebook operates; friends of friends of people they know. So in one sense, it may not be very “visible” or vocal, but it’s there.

  • Your Name

    “many other emerging folks are creative and living in the cracks of the mainline-evangelical divide but really don’t have a central organization right now for some kind of overt identification.”
    I don’t know about the book, but I think your description of where “emergent-type” folks are is spot on. I’m graduating from seminary in May, and the statement above pretty much describes my situation. I certainly don’t fit in with the traditional baptist crowd that I grew up with, and the Mainline denomination seems difficult to get into (in terms of ministry) with my background. It’s a sticky situation, really.

  • T

    Being in the evangelical world, I sure hope to see more of this:
    “others will continue to impact the evangelical movement in a missional or expansive, robust gospel direction.”
    A lot of this has happened as the gospel of the reign of God has received more of a hearing and thereby required a reshaping of our priorities and practices. But we’re still a long way from announcing and living a real and thoroughly integrated “gospel” that does justice to both Jesus & Paul, both the gospels and the epistles.
    Certainly part of this happening hinges on being willing to admire and learn from and even implement some of what liberals and Catholics and Pentecostals, etc., have gotten right.

  • JMorrow

    I also think that line about those of us who fall through the cracks is so important to remember. As someone trying to finish seminary studies, I’m acutely aware that I’ll likely have to walk my own path and trust the Spirit to provide a clearing.
    One of the issues before mainliners when it comes to institutional support for the emerging church is this: While high quality, costly, academic training for pastoral ministry is preferred, the boundaries of that ministry are quite narrowly focused. All the greek, hebrew, bible, various undergrad degrees or work experiences get funneled into 1 or 2 weekly sermons, pastoral care visits, and a monthly building maintenance meeting. The scope of maintenance ministry becomes too narrow for the Gospel we preach, and the wisdom and knowledge we have been equipped to share. But mainline denominational institutions are not adept at embracing those whose call is outside that paradigm.

  • Scot, one thing you didn’t mention, but which I think is important, is that Philip is, in this book, shooting off a broadside to the academic theological community, suggesting that the trickle down effect isn’t reaching the Christian community. Theology is done in the tower, with theologians talking to theologians. With this book he is suggesting a new agenda — one in which theologians begin to write for and talk directly to the community as a whole. That is, using the same means you and I use to communicate to the broader world — the blogosphere.

  • BrianH

    “he scope of maintenance ministry becomes too narrow for the Gospel we preach, and the wisdom and knowledge we have been equipped to share. But mainline denominational institutions are not adept at embracing those whose call is outside that paradigm.” ..Amen to that.
    I’d say that discontent with that is a driving force (and continuing struggle) for most of the clergy I know on this missional journey. Some are called and gifted to jettison it and seek new forms of ministry. Others feel called to serve as bridge builders, working to reshape congregational attitudes from maintenance to mission.

  • John K

    As far as evangelical christian are concerned
    The only real thing to cause differences is our place in reference to sin . A – is there sin B – what is it C- Do I have any place in it.
    Bible is very clear on all this but.. we are constantly changing what makes us line up with what is said. In other words we want comfort.
    but we want comfort outside of standard. So the only answer is to distort the standard.
    Humans physiological make up has not changed since creation.
    we are sinful in our thoughts and deeds. And in constant need.
    any other stance is destructive and deceptive.

  • dopderbeck

    EricG (#6) — I had a similar experience over the past couple of years with a somewhat different result. I was close to starting to attend a PCUSA church where I knew the pastor, who IMHO could be called at least “missional” if not “evangelical,” but who had long gotten “beyond” the conservative Evangelical shibboleths. Honestly, if that church had been closer to my home, I probably would be there now. But — I did manage to become part of a pretty conservative evangelical Bible church close to home where a number of the leaders are moving in a “missional” direction, and where my concerns were taken seriously and some middle ground was found. (I had a number of longstanding relationships at this church, which also helped, I think, in that they knew I’m not entirely a wacko).
    Long and short — I think it’s true both for “mainline” and “Evangelical” churches that what we think those labels mean often don’t really apply. There are many churches both in mainline and Evangelical worlds occupying those liminal spaces, but often it takes lots of work to find them.

  • @JMorrow and Brian…
    Yes. You’re spot on. Denominational systems have generally oriented themselves around one institutional format of Christian community, the congregation, as the chief “delivery system” or “basic missional unit” for everything the church (as a whole) is intended to be and do in the world.
    And that’s a mistake. Specifically, since the time of Theodosius (375), and at least since the 6th century, THAT format of Christian community has become, in essence, a public religious institution whose focus, necessarily, is primarily on delivering what a public religious institution CAN deliver. Deep discipleship and missional formation/deployment are simply not on the list of deliverables from that format of Christianity, for the most part. Christianity basically “outsourced” those functions to preparation for ordained ministry, the ordained ministry itself, and the monasteries.
    And so it has remained– though other kinds of non-congregational formats of Christianity have emerged from time to time to carry out these basic tasks of disciple formation and missional deployment than just theological educational institutions and monasteries– cases in point being groups like early Methodist societies and class meetings, Emmaus/Cursillo/Tres Dies groups, all sorts of mission societies and chapters and organizations, and the list goes on.
    Meanwhile, denominations still tend to be “fixated” on congregations as their “basic missional units”– as if congregations could do all they’ve been designed to do as local public religious institutions since the 6th century AND carry out disciple formation and missional deployment in a deep way. And often as if the “paracongregational” or “parachurch” groups that actually can and DO deliver on those objectives (though perhaps not as well as they could, to be sure) are sort of either “options” or “threats” rather than the kind of core partners in a network of ministry WITH congregations and other forms of Christian community as well that they could be– and in early Methodism, for example, in fact, were.
    Part of our continuing challenge, it seems to me, is to help our denominations AND our congregations get beyond our “congregational fixation” and begin to see what church as network– some of it organic, some of it more institutional, some of it somewhere in between– can actually accomplish IF we function as a network where each part is expected and enabled to to ITS part the best it can while keeping good communication flowing everywhere across the network.
    Peace in Christ,
    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • I really like Taylor Burton-Edwards comments (#15), particularly the picture of the congregation as “the delivery system” for the denominational headquarters/theology-shapers of the group. The experts define and create the theological/doctrinal “products” and the pastors as middle men/women deliver the goods to the church and hopefully the sectarian “good news” gets disseminated to the “market.”
    I think we’re heading toward a hyper-local vision of Christian mission and away from generic, one size fits all “products.”

  • Scot, aren’t the preceding 16 comments a great case in point? The authors aren’t simply retracing the old dividing lines between liberal and evangelical. All of us are interested in a Jesus-centered faith that is responsive to, SO THAT IT CAN SPEAK WITH AND TO, the world that we inhabit. We think that real reflection can CONTRIBUTE to our quest to be faithful disciples; we don’t have to “crucify the intellect” to follow Christ.
    That’s why, strange as it may seem, the oldest and deepest questions of the Christian tradition are still our questions. There is no disconnect between christology and emergents, or between “what is sin?” and “how can the church relate to the world today?”, or between missional and the ultimate Christian hope. Being relevant and probing these questions (in a non-doctrinal and non-dogmatic way) are part of the same quest.
    — Philip Clayton

  • I just wish we had a faith big enough to embrace everyone within what is really essential and the call of the kingdom of God in the grace of Jesus. I am tired of Christians separating over their applications of the truth they profess. Part of what I see within Catholicism which I like, or that I think I see, it is a tradition which is able in one way or another to include various elements at tension with each other, as comprising something of the fullness of the truth. Not that I’m interested in becoming Catholic, but that I perceive as present in some way under that big tent. But with evangelicals it really is a question of either/or.
    I guess this is a goal, to try to arrive to a core in Jesus where we can all stand and part of that core needs to be slack for those who disagree on how to apply the faith, seeking to find common ground in such struggles, and putting first things first.

  • Jason

    HI, I am an Theologian-In-Affiliation with the Progressive Christian Alliance and author of the forthcoming ‘Towards a Theopoetic of The Cross’ from the PCA.
    I am wrestling now with this question: what is a post-mainline, progressive/emergent church look like?