Church as Counterpublic? (Emergent Reactions)

For the past couple of days I’ve been listening to Phyllis Tickle and her friends explore the landscape of Emergence Christianity.  There was much provocation, a lot of questions asked and answered, and some deep and meaningful insights that I’ll be carrying with me for at least the coming weeks, if not longer.  For the next few days I’ll be unpacking some of my thoughts in response to the conference as I work through them.  Today’s post, then, is sort of the first in a series.

I’m not an Emergent native.  I’ve never read Brian McLaren, or any “Emergent” thinker for that matter, beyond a smattering of blog posts.  The Emergent folk, I’ve always thought, were some kind of kin of mine, but I was too busy reading the likes of Milbank and Hauerwas to bother with their books.  But as my understanding of Emergent has deepened so has my respect and my sense that a lot of my imaginings and frustrations would put me in their camp.  I have been slow to jump on the “Emergent” bandwagon,  but I’m getting the sense that I’ll either be run over it or run behind it if I don’t just go ahead and get on.  So I come into all of this Emergent stuff with lots of questions, plenty of ignorance and a good bit of hope.  

As I’ve tried to parse out my long ambivalence about the Emergent movement one thing I keep coming to is the question of counter public.  Many minorities that are excluded from the dominant culture try to answer the conditions of their time by seeking integration.  This is the gay rights movement, a movement that has worked hard and long to make homosexuality relevant and normal, creating a space for equal rights and things like marriage equality.  But there is another way to answer the exclusion.  Some gay activists have questioned the  need to be accepted within heterosexual categories and life.  They have tried instead to embrace their “queerness” and create a kind of “queer” counterpublic.

I’m attracted to this same kind of strategy within the church.  I am happy to see the church as a social norm fall to the wayside; the death of Christendom is a welcome reality.  But I do not want to respond to this death by making a new form of church that is simply more relevant to the dominant culture–a culture that lives in the unreality of an oil economy and global capitalism.  I want a church that works as a counterpublic–a way of carving out a kind of life that critiques, rather than simply assimilates into, the dominant forms.

For my many hours hearing from over twenty speakers at this Emergence gathering I heard very little about the church as counter public.  There was a great deal of criticism of the church itself–of the dying off of old forms and the need to embrace an “Emergent” Christianity that was relevant to the new kinds of people and questions that are arising in our age.  But there was virtually no critique of that age and the larger culture.  No questioning of its forms of life.  More than a couple of abstract mentions of the need for social justice, equality, yada, yada, yada, there was no real engagement with parsing out the troubled unrealities to which our culture is beholden.

I realized this evening that it was this lack of critique of the culture that I found so lacking as I listened in those pews.  Christendom is dead.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  What is critical now, as Phyllis Tickle pointed out, is what is the church going to be?  To simply be a church that exists on YouTube with iPhone apps and answering every consumerist desire of a public that likes to live in the fuzzy, easily manipulable world of perpetual teenage doubt is nothing more than joining the new Empire–no longer that of Constantine, but of global capitalism.

If Emergent Christianity is going to be meaningful it must critique not only the church, but also the culture.  If Emergent Christianity is going to create something that survives in its mission and truly becomes a force in history for the good of the church, it must create a counterpublic.  Otherwise, it will just go the way of the Protestant Reformation, co-opted by the powers that be and deflated of energy by the establishment of state churches.  If Emergent Christianity wants to be transformative, or at least more faithful, Menno Simmons should be their model more than Martin Luther.

Perhaps all of this is just a critique from ignorance, but I got no sense from my quick and deep immersion in this world that I am wrong.


A Lament for Martha: Passenger Pigeons and Psalm 78
Making Hell or Welcoming Heaven: Keystone XL and Our Disordered Desires
Why Does God Need the Church?
Following Rocky Balboa into the Wilderness of Lent
About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (Convergent/Random House 2015).

  • RL

    A facebook friend posted your piece here, and as you state, your judgments on the “emerging movement” are based on limited experience and knowledge. I just wanted to let you know, and you may be encouraged, that there are many emerging (or “missional”) communities that are in fact very much challenging the broader western culture of consumerism, “busyness,” self-absorption, non-sustainable practices, etc. Please check out the website of my church…. The founding pastor is David Fitch who has written books on this and also teaches at a local seminary. I wanted to let you know so that you might be encouraged….and also may find some kindred spirits out there.

  • RL

    Oh, and wanted to add….you might want to check out Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change.” He writes at length about the non-sustainability of our culture…which I believe he calls “the suicide machine.” He is in no way silent about the dangers of the wider culture.

  • Eddie Gonzalez

    Thank you for your thoughts here. I’ve struggled with that question in relation to the emerging/emergent movement for a while.

  • Frank

    You are not ignorant. This is so spot on. Very well said. Wow!

  • Rafael Vallejo

    In regard to being faithful you suggest that Emergent Christianity should have Menno Simmons rather than Martin Luther as model. I am thinking it could also be a Romero, King, or Day.

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    Emergent Christianity is for those that want to breathe breath into a dying institution. In reality, it is a social organization that has its own purposes, which are defined by those wanting the Church to survive.
    Why shouldn’t some want the Church to survive, as their livelihoods depend on it!