The emergent church movement challenged by a participant

The following is a guest blog post by Brandon Morgan, one of the organizers and leaders of the Void Collective.  Brandon is a seminary student and participant in an emergent church who has attended various emergent church conferences and meetings.

Brandon’s guest post (unedited):


I just got back from a tiring drive to North Carolina where a group of my
friends and I performed an event at the Wild Goose Festival-a self-proclaimed
community combining the various impulses of art, justice and spirituality that
reside within Emergent and Progressive Euro-American Christianity. I have been
conversant with and engaged in the Emergent conversation for a few years now,
mostly dealing with the philosophical shifts within post-evangelical emergent
types. I have to say initially that I was raised in a Southern Baptist family
who were confessedly conservative politically and theologically. And because it
is vitally important that the terms "conservative" and "progressive" be defined
within a specific context, I will say that the conservative proclivity dominant
within my nascent Christian spiritual journey commonly held anti-gay, pro-life
views mixed with inerrant views of scripture and complimentarian views of gender
in family and ministry. This will sound familiar to most evangelicals, even
though many self-confessing evangelicals refute these views.

I generally have qualms with much of the political and theological conservatism
rampant within conservative evangelical circles. I don't feel, however, that i
have much at stake in the conversation about evangelicalism, its definition, its
life or death, and its connection to right-wing political policies. I do,
however, have a stake in the  direction of the church in America and where the
Emergent folks fit in to that conversation. I have this stake because I am a
Christian in America and I am fairly conversant and sympathetic with Emergent
forms of American Christianity.  For a while, I saw Emergents struggling to
recover from their fallout with fundamentalist Christianity. Emergents wanted to
be as socially engaged as some of the folks they saw in the Mainline
denominations. I am sympathetic with the concerns and criticisms of conservative
evangelicalism and the way this group so readily conflated Christianity with
right wing political agendas. The Emergent folks eventually wanted to become,
post-conservative, or post-evangelical in light of their fallout with the
conservatism in their evangelical past. This need to redefine the church in
America apart from conservative evangelicalism has sort of left the direction of
Emergent types up for grabs. They pledge to no center, institution or
affiliation. They have no infrastructure and no money. Their strive for
authenticity has lead to a number of attempts to reshape the church in America
(and across the pond as well) in  ways that transcends the evangelical-mainline
divide. (I use "mainline" perhaps unhelpfully to describe denominations who
align themselves with left-wing political views and who find themselves within
an American form of the tradition of liberal theology begun in 17th century
Germany).

Upon returning from the Wild Goose festival, I felt that the festival was, among
others things, a blatant attempt to show how well Emergent folks and mainline
folks get along (particularly regarding the LGBTQ community)  and how they
generally have the same enemies (conservative evangelicals). (Typologies are not
necessarily helpful, but they will have to do here). If Emergent folks initially
sought to bring together the evangelical emphases of conversion, scripture and
discipleship with the progressive emphases of social justice, inclusion, and
theologically progressive approaches to Christian doctrine (which, we must
admit, often amounts to a covert denial of many traditional forms of those
doctrines), then the question is: have Emergent folks succeeded in transcending
the evangelical-progressive division in American Protestantism. Have they
formulated a holistic theological approach able to include the benefits of both
sides and jettison the negative aspects? Some may question whether this is
actually the goal of Emergent folks. If this is not their goal, at least
peripherally, then my personal understanding of being involved with the Emergent
conversation is perhaps questionable. But more importantly, if this is not at
least a tertiary goal, then my question is: why haven't Emergent folks joined
the mainline denominations? Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so
easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline
denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns? Another way to ask this
question would be: Why hasn't the Emergent critique of evangelicalism's
involvement with the American nation-state and it's tendency toward creating
theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of Mainline
denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with
nation-state interests? Yet another way to ask this question might be: Why do
post-liberals (e.g. The Ekklesia Project) look so different from liberals yet
nothing like evangelicals, while post-evangelical Emergents look alot like
liberals?

One reason for this is perhaps economic. Evangelical churches wont fund Emergent
projects and the Mainlines, who have been trying to recover from their downfall,
are willing to invest. But I sense economics is not the only issue. Another
issue is the inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Many Emergents unquestionably
advocate the way Mainlines have dealt with this issue, which is to see the
church as a tool for social justice in America  whose goals, therefore, tend to
be ineradicably tied to the maneuverings and structures of the American
nation-state. While I have deeply sympathetic opinions about the LGBTQ community
and its relationship to the church, and while I also have my opinions about
economic investment in Emergent projects, my more fervent concern is to ask if
Emergent folks are really going to question the Mainline denominations'
political and theological liberalism in a similar way they criticize
evangelicalism's theological and political conservatism. If not, then its a
question whether or not Emergent folks have anything new to offer to American
Protestantism. If they do have something to offer, then perhaps it should be a
critique on the conflations of liberal freedom (aka pluralistic tolerance) and
Christian freedom in the Mainline church, or the  attempt to manipulate
nation-state policy to fit with the vision of such freedom. Maybe it should be a
critique on conflating love with open tolerance to anyone, which eventually
leaves everyone affirmed as they are and no one converted. It could be the
failed attempt to reduce theological claims to social justice claims, which
forces us to ask exactly what the doctrines of the church, the Trinity, the
Incarnation and the Resurrection accomplish, other than pithy symbols used to
advance left-wing forms of American democracy. The critique could be the loss of
Christian uniqueness within American religious and political culture that
suffers from a spiritually amalgamate ethos that can be summarized by a phrase
made in Paul Knitter's Wild Goose talk: "I love Buddha and Jesus, but I still go
home to Jesus."

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.

  • http://www.barrybiblicalnotes.com Barry Applewhite

    Thanks for the post!

    Trying to drive a car while you are building it is likely to end in a crash, if the car ever moves at all. The emergent church is trying something similar to that Quixotic task.

    The emergent church knows more about what it is not than about what it is. Aside from offering something trendy and assertively not traditional church, it’s not clear what value this movement adds to Christian faith.

    In trying to explore new ideas in theology, Dr. Olson is like a scientist. The emergent church is more like a group of alchemists. The common ground between those two is illusory, not real.

    -Barry

  • John

    This is the most interesting aspect of this article to me:

    “Why do post-liberals (e.g. The Ekklesia Project) look so different from liberals yet nothing like evangelicals, while post-evangelical Emergents look alot like liberals?”

    Since you specifically mention this group, what about The Ekklesia Project earns them the title “post-liberal” vs. Evangelicals? The individuals I know who are endorsers of the EP would probably be comfortable being labelled Evangelicals, perhaps even more so than being labelled Post-Liberals.

  • Russ

    Very well put… I have said again and again to my Christian friends that unless they participate in the “re-make” of emergent Christianity instead of debunking and critizing it, then they will indirectly suffer from its ultimate failure within their own faith constructs.

    Emergent Christianity has a lot to offer but it cannot align neither right nor left… it has to be on its own distinctive… neither fundamental nor progressive but Jesus through and through. I applaud Brandon’s analysis and would encourage evangelics/emergents alike to better express postmodern Christianity lest it becomes stillborn in its own cradle!

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    Thank you for your valuable insights and your candor in relaying your thoughts.

    Your article appears to confirm a nagging thought I’ve had – that in so many ways, the Emergent/Emerging Church is about providing religous cover for the socially liberal. An overstatement maybe, but the seeming lack of ability to distinguish the core values of the Progressive Christians and the “emergent folks” reinforces that notion in me.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    Thanks for posting this observation from an obviously serious disciple. One thing that is going unstated in all of our efforts to define ourselves as evangelical, progressive, liberal, conservative, emergent, etc. is that all of our accustomed institutions as we know them took shape in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Our religious and educational systems have not really changed since the 19th century. In that formation, they were well suited for equipping the populace for conformity, duty, and factory work. As society has changed, and is still in the process of changing, our institutions have not really kept pace.

    I think that part of what we are experiencing in all of our discussions and efforts is that we are living in a vortex of change and it is not really clear how institutions will arise to meet the needs of our society. I, for one, see the importance of preserving the “mainline Protestant witness” as well as the “Evangelical witness” as well as the historical “liturgical witness” to how Christianity is to be lived out in the world. How all of that will happen will probably not play out the way any of us envision, but it is vital that we keep trying, each in our own way, to flesh out this faith that has been deposited.

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  • Daniel W

    I find this post absolutely fascinating, because I find myself relating to what you understand the Emergent movement to be ideally striving for, however I would never classify myself as Emergent and I actually have a strong distaste for the movement. Among my colleagues in the religion department at a public university, as well as around mainline Christians, I find myself being the conservative outcast. However, among my conservative Christian friends, I am often considered the liberal because of my political views and my reliance on historical criticism of the scriptures. Things are even further complicated by the bits of conservatism within my liberalism and vice versa. For example, though I am likely to vote Democrat, I feel that abortion is morally wrong and I find most defenses of it repulsive (though whether the state should place strict controls on it, I am not sure). Also, even though I believe that historical criticism is a crucial tool for understanding the scriptures, I give the Gospels and the other NT writings the benefit of the doubt when judging their historical accuracy. This leads me to feeling that I am post-conservative and post-liberal when it comes to my faith.

    However, I don’t really have a problem considering myself an evangelical. I believe in the importance of having a committed relationship with God and I believe that the Gospel has an exclusive claim on salvific truth (my soteriology is more complex than it seems from just this statement, but there is not space to get into that now). I would never consider myself Emergent nor do I really have any desire to become involved in the movement simply because it just seems to me like trendy liberal Christianity. It seems that many Emergents are just as liberal as mainline Christians, and some are so trendy as to be exclusivist. Can you imagine your grandmother attending your average Emergent church? How about a blue-collar worker from central Georgia? In fact, before I read this post, I had no idea that the Emergent movement was anything other than a group of liberals trying to escape their evangelical pasts and attempting to prove to the world that Christians aren’t as lame as they might appear to be at times.

  • Ron Tester

    I didn’t get to the Wild Goose Festival this year. Like the writer, however, I, too, have been conversant with the Emergent conversation for a few years as well, and I agree with much of his characterization of the Emergent movement. I did have a couple things I wanted to suggest in response, though. First, I am not sure that “conflating love with open tolerance to anyone” leads to a condition in which “everyone is affirmed and no one converted.” I dare say that those I know who have been hurt by conservative evangelicals/evangelicalism were won (by the power of the Spirit) more through love conflating with tolerance than through “love” manifesting as animosity and intolerance. You can proof-text it as “His kindness leads us to repentance” or “you can catch more flies with honey,” but many people I know have been repulsed and scarred by evangelicals whose “love” looks so much like “hate.”

    As far as what “new things the Emergent conversation has to offer,” I would respond that, on the one hand, the Emergent movement probably doesn’t care about “what new things it has to offer.” I have been to a multitude of Emergent gatherings, conferences, etc., and I have never heard any overt “sales pitch” or recruitment for the Emergent movement. Group leaders and speakers have often encouraged and challenged participants to pursue God and a relationship with Christ, but I have yet to hear any emphasis put on the unique selling proposition or member benefits of the Emergent movement per se. On the other hand, the statement contains at least one possible response—the Emergent conversation offers exactly that: a conversation. In the churches I have attended most of my life, having an honest conversation without regurgitating the party line was the quickest way to be excluded from fellowship. I think the conversation itself, though maddening to some who want conclusive straightforward and clear cut answers, has restored faith in the possibility of faith for many of us who were taught implicitly if not explicitly that honest conversation, especially about particular topics, was not acceptable.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve K.

      Well said, Ron!

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  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Seeing as how this conversation has moved on since this original post, I just wanted to let y’all know that I have posted a response to Brandon’s article here in a comment on this post.

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    • rogereolson

      He must mean Brandon MORGAN.

  • donsands

    I have seen John the Baptist type preachers and have seen people convicted. To feel rotten about sin is a good thing. I feel like a scumball, and I am. But God…. Wow, what a gracious Savior to have spikes hammered through His wrists, and precious feet for my filthy sins and rebellion against a holy Lord. The Gospel is good news for people who would be better off never being born, if they don’t repent and trust in Christ and His precious blood and glorious ressurection.
    There are phonies on both sides, and plenty on both sides, that’s for sure. May our Lord give them grace to feel like crap, and grace to to receive His holy forgiveness. Amen.

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