Wild Goose Reflection

Brandon Morgan, a participant at Wild Goose, who wrote this for Roger Olson’s site:

I don’t necessarily mean to lay my censuring cards on the table about Progressive Christianity in America (Notice, I critique conservatives too). I
just mean to say that if Emergent folks find themselves comfortable in Mainline walls, particularly the walls of liberal pluralism dominant in both theological and political aspects of American liberal protestantism, then I question what new things the Emergent conversation has to offer. If they have something new to say, then angst about a painful past with fundamentalism will need to produce theologically fruitful reflections about the church that look different than a recovery of mainline dominance in the early 20th century. Emergent folks will have to start distinguishing themselves from progressive Christianity if they want people to think that something new and important is really happening. They will also have to start caring more about the theological and political space of the church itself than they do about using the church to bolster American nation-state policies.

Simply put, emergent folks need some theological sophistication that cultivates distinctiveness lest they seep into the homogenized spirituality of progressive Christianity in America or find themselves directly tied to the project, initially espoused by liberal Christianity and copied by evangelical Christianity, of trying to use the Christian church to control the history of American politics.

Roger Olson came back with this by putting it all into two questions:

How is your new, different type of Christianity different (at the deep level of theology and ethics) from “mainline,” liberal Protestantism?  Your reaction to fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is clear.  Now what do you have to offer European and American Christianity (and hopefully the rest of the world) that is new and different from modernity-based liberalism?

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  • Daniel


  • I’m beginning to wonder if this is the sole task of the Emergent Church movement… simply to facilitate ongoing discussion and growth amongst the Evangelical Church. I’ve witnessed at least two non-Emergent Church organizations/churches adopt some of the principles of what the Emergent Church have been discussing and actually implement them. Perhaps it’s time for the Emergent Church to spend some time in self-reflection to determine who they really are and what they’re really about. Instead of calling themselves a “church” or “church movement” maybe they are simply a think tank; because this is all I’m really seeing. Not to discount this, but to call it what it really is.

  • Amos Paul

    I basically agree with these comments, but in the emergent’s defense–I imagine that their response could easily be that mainline liberal Protestant’s ‘theology’ might be okay, but vehmently disagree with their organizational/social structures.

    If they believe that those points are crucial to the church and disagree with the way that mainline protestants organize and conduct themselves, then they can be justified in diverging away with a distinct label.

  • Saw where you are speaking at Renovare conference in Wichita. My wife and I are coming. Any chance they would squeeze us into your conversation group. I noticed it is closed. 🙁

  • Adam

    I feel like this isn’t a real question:

    How is your new, different type of Christianity different (at the deep level of theology and ethics) from “mainline,” liberal Protestantism?

    Meaning that the person asking can use the question itself to dodge any meaningful answer that could be given. I.E. any answer given won’t be “deep enough” to count as a real difference. Or we get so “deep” and specific that we ignore the peripherals and find “no difference”.

  • dopderbeck

    I think this is right on. Emergents need to engage with contemporary strands such as post-liberalism (e.g. what you might call the “Duke” school), Great Tradition ecumenism (e.g. Robert Jensen et al.) and Radical Orthodoxy.

  • Richard

    To paraphrase Tony Jones (and The Dude), “That’s just, like, your opinion man…”

    Where’s the data for this or is it purely anecdotal?

    What does it look like to “distinguish oneself from mainline”?

    If I support federal programs to as a social safety net, does that make me a liberal? I remember when that meant I was compassionate… Do I need to renounce social security and food stamps to prove my authenticity?

    Am I not allowed to march for peace lest people think I’m just another mainliner?

    This seems to be a lot of verbal jabbing with no clear picture of what the author would prefer to see.

  • Kenton

    As one who self-identifies as emergent (even though I try to avoid playing the spokesperson role), I think Amos Paul gets it right (#3).

    To draw out his answer more, emergent is not about being “deeply theological” – which is not to say it lacks depth of theology, only that theology isn’t the point. A lot of us come from traditions where we spend week after week studying the bible (no wonder we call many of them “Bible Churches”) and never actually doing any of the things it says we should be doing. Consequently, emergent focuses less on what to think and more on what to do. To that end the options are (as Brandon and Roger suggest) join up with the mainline denominations, or venture out on our own. The problems with the former are that they can get so bogged down in their structure that we’re right back to talking about what we’re going to do and never actually doing it. A flatter hierarchy opens up more possibilities to live out our faith missionally.

  • Jeremy W.

    I feel like I keep seeing this same critique leveled again and again. Wasn’t this basically the reaction to recent books by McLaren and Bell? Critics basically said this is just re-hashed theological liberalism.

    But here’s my question: How can all this conversation come down just the same old Evangelical/Fundy/Conservative v. Liberal/Mainline/Progressive as the late 1800s or 1920s. Hasn’t the entire context of the conversation changed?

    A 100 or so years ago you could assume a cultural context where folks might fall into one of these camps (or Roman Catholic). Today all bets are off; there are way more options in our postmodern/post-Christian scene.

    Whatever similarities there are with emerging and classic liberalism it seems to me the differing context make the comparison moot, it’s not longer an us v. them conversation (if it ever was). Add into this converging conversations with emerging that include missional and global Christianity and the picture is even more complicated

    All that to say, dismissing emerging as liberal is just too easy…and not at all helpful.

  • Paul W

    I sometimes find the way some Evangelicals speak so dismissivly of ‘mainline denominations’ to be rather disheartening.

  • Kenneth McIntosh

    Amen to #3 and #8, with the addition that the conversation is engaging large numbers of people who would not be involved with or aware of the older liberal mainline movements. So, yes, the emerging theology might not be new, but the organizational format and the people involved are new, and that’s significant.

  • dopderbeck (#6) Many emergents do engage with just those schools of thought you mention. There is no one “emergent” theology because there is no one “emergent” institution to validate it.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    My question is “How long is the ’emergent conversation’ supposed to go on and who decides when its over?” Part of the emergent discontent is related to the plethora of denominations. Are we now going to keep the old evangelical ones, the old mainline ones, and add a whole bunch of emergent ones to the mix? Some emergents don’t call themselves emergent because that’s not the emergent way. So they could be considered independent, but that’s already a classification used by many of the old evangelical and Bible churches–and Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church, which is already emergent, or maybe pre-emergent, which is good for weed prevention, which was one of the points in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. Maybe they should just be called Christian churches. O that’s a denomination too. Dang, I’m confused–which is not what I wanted to be at 69!

  • Robin

    Don’t worry Paul. I feel like the way people talk about our conservative brethren is disheartening as well.

  • Robert

    I’ve said it before elsewhere and I’ll say it again here:

    The Emergent Church started as a means of better sharing the Gospel with unchurched that has become an excuse for not sharing the Gospel.

    When I read McLaren, Bell, Jones, etc I simply see a repacking of modernist claims from the turn of 19/20th century. That is fine but at least be honest about it. As a means of offering a counter-argument to their parents’ fundamentalism (which needed to be rebuked) the Emergent church has simply defaulted to theological opposite of those claims…modernism (or Liberal theology.)

    At a time where they could have offered a better answer they failed to do so. The lack of theological ingenuity has been the death knell of the Emergent Church movement.

  • How is your new, different type of Christianity different (at the deep level of theology and ethics) from “mainline,” liberal Protestantism?

    On an individual basis: I would pray that a transformed life, holiness & the fruits of the Spirit, would set us (emergents and evangelicals, both) apart from “mainline” liberal Protestantism. I have known too many liberal Protestants who were ignorant of scripture, excusing of immoral &/or unrighteous behavior in their own lives, those of other members, and yes, their pastors, too. One eyebrow-raising experience nailed it for me: founding members of a PCUSA church told us that having a pastor who lied to & manipulated the congregation was “the price we pay” for having a “charismatic pastor.” Yikes!

    On a community life basis (local churches & judicatories): I pray that the way we listen to the Holy Spirit and build one another up in Christ is significantly different from the human politicking which dominated the specific liberal churches I was a part of. It was masked as “sanctified” because of the building, but in fact was the exact same undermining, gossipy, back-stabbing, lording-over methodology that I’d observed in corporations & secular politics. ’twas ugly stuff which betrays the Body of Christ.

    NB: my experiences are anecdotal and, I hope, not representative of all mainline churches. They were very discouraging & disheartening for Christians trying to live according to the Word of life, however, Paul W #10.

  • Christopher

    In response to Olson’s questions…

    I think the emergent group, if they would embrace a more conservative sexual ethic, could say what they are offering to the church in the US is an anabaptist vision of the Kingdom of God. Well, I hope that is where they end up.

  • Lac

    I do not have an emerging church at a reasonable distance from my house, but from my limited understanding, I see the emerging church as a place for post-evangelicals/fundamentalists to heal from years of emphasis on right theology and abuses of power and spiritual health — a place where one can ask questions and wrestle with faith. My understanding and experience in mainline communities is that there is not the opportunity to ask questions — in fact, many mainline churches practice closed communion and can be overly focused on theology as well. Mainline church members may not have the history of abuse, so they aren’t as likely to question or understand us former fundamentalists.

    I do share some of the concerns of the article though. I don’t completely identify or fit into the emergent conversation b/c of differences in my journey. When reading progressive/emerging blogs, I fail to resonate with all the political and social agendas…as disinterested Independant in politics and pretty conservative when it comes to social issues like abstinence. I don’t have the frustration many of these progressives have against evangelicals — I just am intellectually liberal/agnostic.

  • Ryan B.

    I’ve noticed that Emergent has strayed over time from critiquing both liberal and conservative streams of Christianity to now simply critiquing the conservatives. Many Emergents now self-identify as “progressive,” (see the Progressive Portal at Patheos for examples) and appear to have stopped reaching out to Evangelicals entirely. Whereas I once indentified as Emergent, I no longer feel that there is a place for a Wesleyan-Anabaptist Evangelical such as myself.

  • Rob

    #18 shares a really good observation saying: “I see the emerging church as a place for post- evangelicals/fundamentalists to heal from years of emphasis on right theology and abuses of power and spiritual health — a place where one can ask questions and wrestle with faith.” Trust me, there are plenty of screaming “left-wing” universal Christ inspired Christians such as myself that don’t find the “emergent” or the “emerging” movements liberal or open enough. I think Olsen’s questions are begging to be answered. Strikes me though that somebody had asked something similar when criticising Martin Luther probably 10 min. or so after the hammer hit the nail. Give ’em time, they’ll figure it out.

  • Maybe I’m missing the point, but why would an ‘Emergent Church’ necessarily be a distinct organisation. In many respects that would seem to be self-defeating. Isn’t the emergent movement about getting ‘mainline’ churches to think outside the habitual ruts many find themselves in? So why set up a separate and distinct movement to do that? Surely such change ought to be effected from within rather than without – a change of mindset of ‘organisations’? Admittedly, the way to do this, at times, may be to show by example, but if that example is taken up and subsumed into the mainline, thereby effecting the change, is that not the very goal?
    Perhaps it’s because I come from a British (more precisely, Scottish) Christian perspective, but the Emergent Movement here is very much from within rather than by breakaway. Yes, there are projects which seem ‘separate’, but they are, more often than not, supported by a mainline denomination. And often their ideas and ethos feed back into that supporting group.
    I just don’t get the apparent need to apply labels and seek ‘distinctives’ which I see in much of US Christianity.

  • Eric

    I resonated quite a bit with Brandon’s article because when I first became a Christian, 7 years ago, I encounter some Christians at the church I was attending who were exploring the emergent thingy. We would spend time talking about the Bible, but rarely open one. We also would go to the bar and they would complain about teetotalling culture of the church. I even accompanied them to a Christian festival where they spent the whole time complaining about how the acts were knock offs of secular bands and artists. After spending about a year with this community, I realized that all they talked about was what they didn’t support or agree with and then patted themselves on the back for all agreeing.

    Before I moved, I asked them what they were emerging from and sadly, they didn’t get it. They said that they wanted to create their own Christian community that was different from the large church that they grew up in that they felt had become too exclusive. I tried to point out the irony in their mission but they refused to see it. I don’t stay in touch with any of them because, they didn’t approve of where I choose to go to Bible College and Seminary.

    Most of my non-Christian friends who hung out at the bar were always ignored by this group, as they stayed to themselves. For all of my friends this really turned them off to being part of anything related to Christianity. I tried to encourage this group that we have a great opportunity to actually share Jesus with other, but they would get upset, saying that was what their old church would try to do. Fortunately, some of these non-Christian friends have gotten involved with a great church who reached out to them and accepted with jagged edges and all.

    I tell this story point out the snobbery and egotistical attitudes I think you find in some emergent groups. I initially thought this emergent whatever its called would develop into more action then talk but in a lot of ways, they are a product of their consumer oriented, selfish church going parents. Even though I am in seminary, training to be a pastor, I find it incredible discouraging that the best alternative to traditional fundementalist church is self righteousness for NOT being fundamentalist and makes me want nothing to do with any church at all.

  • Joe Canner

    Christopher #17: Are you referring to homosexuality or am I missing something more general in emergent church thought on sexuality?

  • Plstepp

    Whatever it started out as, Emergent ended up being nothing more than cover for young, disaffected evangelicals to vote Democrat and endorse homosexual practices. The arc that began with A GENEROUS ORTHODOXY reached its apex & logical conclusion when Donald Miller prayed the closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

  • The Church is always emerging. In the 1500’s it was the Reformation, 1700’s the great awaking, early 1900″s the fundamentalist movement, 1930’s it was Pentacostism, in the 60’s Evangelicalism born, and in the late 80’s the Seeker Sensitive showed movement showed us how it should be done. From my limited point of view, it seems to me that the Emergent people are not that much different from those who have come behind them be it liberal or fundamental

    In my estimation Emergent has more in common with these other movements then realized. The very name Emergent is used to distinguish the movement for the other guys, just like the name fundamentalism was used to define what we don’t believe. And, Like Evangelicalism and the seeker sensitive movement before it, the Emergent movement is a response to what they don’t like in the church. It seems to be that the Emergent movement is kind of the rebellious grand child of Evangelicalism.

    I do think that Emergers (like others both Evangelical and the Seeker Sensitive movement) operate outside of a theological framework. Everyone has a theology. The question that I am curious about is whether they’re actions are being influenced by their theology or is there theology being shape by the actions?

    I myself am someone who holds to traditional, orthodox beliefs (don’t tell anyone). And, I am also involved in lifting up justice in my community and around the world, loving all peoples no matter their race, creed, or sexual orientation. I like tradition churches (sorry), and other houses of worship where Christ is lifted high; whether its the fundamentalist church, traditional denominations, or Emergent. I thought that’s what being tolerant was all about. I hold to a theology that promotes right orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In my ignorance, I thought this was just good old fashion Biblical Christianity (is it ok to say Biblical Christianity? I never know theses day).

    I’m 32 yrs old, latino, born and raised in the city I Pastor a Bible Church in one of the most urbanized areas of America. Our Church strives to have a love for each other that overflows from our love for Christ. Maybe were Emergent?

    I understand that many people have been burned by church (myself being one who’s feet are constantly to the fire), but being burned by a particular type of church should not cause us to need new movements, rather this should be more incentive to stay in these church and make a difference, not abandoning them and the leave behind our brothers and sisters to be abused by those in power. The Reformation didn’t start as a “were aren’t them” movement. Martin Luther saw the injustices and theological inconsistencies in the church he loved and desired to change it. May we have the same spirit, through the Power of the risen Christ, and the Spirit of love to do the same.

  • Plstepp

    Wow, that sounds harsher than I intended it to sound.

    Look; I was very enamored with Emergent ca 2004. Evangelicalism had grown inbred, arid, too much head & not enough heart. Emergent, particularly as articulated in A GENEROUS ORTHODOXY, seemed to offer a way through the malaise toward a more honest, relational Christianity. But the “political thing” overtook everything else, and the promise has slipped away.

  • Robert

    I think the problem is about organisational structures and communications failure – so many people are never meaningfully exposed to anything but conservative ideas – than about theology. We’ve been trying to make our church more democratic; I’m sick of seeing people drift away from churches because they’re ignored, marginalised or disrespected by cliquey-minded ‘leaders’. We’re now taking charge of the preaching plan, and giving most of the services to our own preachers so we can have some continuity, and develop our own worship style. Time will tell, but it might work!

  • Tom

    I have seen the Emergent Church as crossing over many of the former lines drawn in Christianity. I like the idea of feeling free to accept the ideas and practices of many of the different strains of Christianity. It has been freeing to me to be able to look and accept things from the Orthodox and Catholic church as well as the mainline denomination. I don’t think any of us have a corner on the truth and I’m happy with that. To answer a question from above, I hope the conversation never ends and we get to Heaven and are still talking about it.

  • I’m not sure who I speak for but I’m an ex-Southern Baptist, firmly evangelical Methodist pastor who hates it when people call John Wesley’s denomination mainline.

    There is a better form of evangelicalism that is coming into the world (though I’m not sure it has anything to do with the movement of white men with soul-patches).

    We believe that the Bible is a gift, not a weapon. We trust God’s Word and are highly suspicious of the privilege and biases we bring to the text. We believe that we are saved by joining a body and a kingdom. We believe that confessing Jesus as Lord means no political party, flag, or economic system can claim our allegiance. We believe that the cross is way more than a transaction; it’s the basis for perfect, vulnerable community; it’s a statement of welcome both to those who are being crucified and to those who crucify others. We believe that self-righteousness is hell. We believe that sweatshop workers can’t have daily quiet times. We believe that doing God’s work is a precious gift from Him to us that evaporates the minute we use it to credential ourselves. That’s all that comes to mind for now.

  • Amos Paul


    I’m curious as to why you are bothered by Methodisms label of mainline? As far as I’ve known, it’s an historical term defined by various protestant groups’ active and consistent membership in America from colonialism to now.

    Though some people assume a theological or political stance as part of the word, I’ve always taken that meaning to be secondary and less substantive. Is it that part of the label which concerns you?

  • Paul W

    @ #14. Robin, thanks for the solidarity.

    @ #16. Ann, bad experiences do abound in all kinds of churches don’t they? Sorry for yours.

    Anyhow it seems that a number of people seem to be dissappointed about those identifying themselves as Emergent. This looks to me like some Evangelicals were hoping that the Emergent discussion would help produce a better version of “us” but instead ended up looking way too much like “them” (mainline denomination).

    I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been above. It is the general “us” and “them” mentality that I find disheartening. This is especially so when the “them” is handled with near flipant dismissal. It just so happens that in this particular post the “them” orientation is directed toward the mainline.

  • Thomas S. Gay

    John Wesley’s denomination wouldn’t know John Wesley or those in the classes if they bit them. And this “them” is also directed toward the mainline, in particular their leadership. You think it’s flippant, but it is more particularly related to John Wesley’s “Standard 52 Sermons”.

  • P.

    Thomas, there are tons of theologically sound Methodist churches, and I’m glad to see Morgan speaking up for them. One problem with the UMC, though, is that we’re not as good promoting ourselves as the SBC is. We’ve got a lot to offer, a voice of reason in a church world where the far left and far right shout the loudest. Yes, we do have our crazies, but everyone does, and they’re in the minority.

  • I recently read Jim Belcher’s Deep Church and the number one thing that stuck out to me was the discussion of his time with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt. I think Jim and John Armstrong went to Minneapolis and spent some time with Solomon’s Porch and then with Tony and Doug. This was a gigantic “aha” moment for Jim as they worked out the Emergent hermeneutic. Tony pushed Jim a bit on the difference between a “bounded-set” “centered-set” and “relational” hermeneutic. Tony’s argument, if I am remembering correctly, was that a “centered-set” person is really just a kind “bounded-set” person, and when you push the envelope with them, they will revert to the boundaries every time. The relational hermeneutic is committed to the community as the definer of truth. That really shook me up a bit. Jim is convinced the way forward, obviously, is through a centered-set approach, and I think he disagrees with Tony here (that is, about a centered set person really being bounded set). But, I think this is what Brandon’s observation is all about. Emergent is committed to a relational hermeneutic and it drives those of us in the other two camps crazy. I would consider myself “centered-set” but I realize that as a centered-set person I still have boundaries. The relational hermeneutic is willing to let those boundary lines disappear. I don’t think they are going the way of liberalism, it just doesn’t resemble what we are used to and the boundary setting people keep “feeling” like it is liberalism. So, the folks that attended Wild Goose and didn’t realize they were entering a relational hermeneutic zone walked away wanting definition and boundary and I just don’t think Emergent is going to give it to them. But, I don’t think it is mainline. I just think the mainline is more willing to play.

  • I was at Wild Goose, too – though I admit, as much to hear singer David Wilcox (and watch him in action as a participant) as anything else. Well, not quite. Because I want to see what was happening in ‘progressive Christianity’.

    I think the point about there being a main ‘relational hermeneutic’ is right, but most of those there had a more nuanced version of it – namely, it’s not so much that the community determines the truth. It’s that when the community is addressing, asking, probing, and getting the kind of answers that lead to more questions, it is operating in a way where the Holy Spirit is free to speak and lead them to new ways to live and relate. My trouble with that is that the only way you recognize what the Spirit is doing is through Christ, and the only way to know Christ is to learn His story through the only reliable witness to it — the Scriptures. So if you do the sort of relational dialogue they speak of, it becomes all the more important to learn the Bible thoroughly and on its own terms. Within the effort to learn the Bible and listen to the people around them, the community dialogue can take place freely and look for the Spirit moving wherever the Spirit is.

    (That’s why I was so seriously unhappy to see material about two of the Gnostic gospels, brought in by the United Church folks. Get your feminism from real sources, not superstition melodramas which show a Jesus that does not at all fit in with the brass-tacks Jesus of the Gospels. The Gospels’ Jesus shares the truth with all who would listen, who treats the material world as real and valuable, forgives universally, and ruins any ideas of a class of ‘knowers of secrets’. The Gnostic gospel’s Jesus is none of that.)

    I’m glad to see so many people asking questions, it’s long overdue. Questions are a great start, and progress is a good result, but they are not in the end the point of it. Asking questions has a purpose: learning. And learning has a purpose: doing. And doing has a purpose: being. And being has a purpose: to love the Lord and follow his ways, so that all may know the real Jesus through us, live in his forgiving grace, and become full and decisive citizens of his Kingdom. That may yet emerge from this.

  • Kenton

    using an old post to see if strike through works on this site.

    Move along. Nothing to see here.

    is this text strike through