"The Emergent Mystique"

In the latest Christianity Today, Andy Crouch wrote an article about the emerging church movement. There’s been lots of email traffic in my inbox over this, as well as some traffic in the blogosphere. Here’s an edited version of an email I sent out to a few friends with my thoughts on Andy’s piece:

“In writing, as he does in person, Andy came off as sly, with a twinkle in his eye. However, he did seem to capture, as a journalist, some of the ambivalence within emergent/emerging church (there’s one ambivalence right there: which is it?). Is Rob Bell one of us or not? Does the Emergent Convention represent us well or not? Is it a movement or a conversation? Ask 10 people these questions and read 10 blogs, and you’ll get 20 answers. So if a journalist walks around and interviews a bunch of us, he’s going to hear a lot of dissensus. I think that was one of the major themes that came through in the article.

“Now I personally think that dissensus is a wonderful thing and we should emphasize it. That difference of opinions is what makes the conversation so fruitful, and the inner critique is only going to make the EC, our books, etc., a lot better. Let’s be honest, the EC got a major overhaul for ’05 based on some of that inner critique.

“However, bloggers like ***** **** are already using this article to (once again) say that emergent in the US is merely altered evengelicalism while in the UK it’s really an orgasmically great thing. That’s sick, and if anything needs to be blogged about by some of us, it’s that this was a journalist’s view about what we’re up to, and as such, it is partly right and partly a misrepresentation. That’s what happens in journalism.”

Some I’ve talked to on the phone think that Andy tried to marginalize us by making the hair jokes a running gag throughout the piece. I personally think that Andy is an important dialogue partner for us; if when he looks at us he sees more style than substance, then we’d better work harder at making substance our priority (I bet that even Andy knows that the hair jokes were a cheap shot). And CT may want to marginalize us, but I think a lot of organizations would kill for a cover article highlighting their impact.

Some have a valid gripe that the piece only profiles one church (Mars Hill (the Grand Rapids variety)) and one author (Brian McLaren), and that neither of these does ministry in an urban context. Now I haven’t talked with Andy yet, but I’m sure that he’ll acknowledge that the emerging church is more complex than he could possibly report in a 3,000 word piece. Again, maybe the lesson is that we need to emphasize the small, urban church plant as we talk about emergent with others.

If we can’t all take a deep breath and learn something at a time like this, then we’re really screwed.

  • jay v.

    Having re-read the piece, I think Andy does a pretty good job of conveying some of the questions about Emergent that many of us have been asking. I don’t see this as something to worry about, but rather another step in the journey. If we can’t handle critique, then (as you say) we have severe problems.

  • jay v.

    By the way, I posted some thoughts on this on my blog if you can pull yourself away from graduate school reading.

  • Brian

    I posted some thoughts on the article and the follow-up piece (Emergent Evangelism) on my blog as well. I was relieved, actually, that the church Andy profiled wasn’t urban. It seems to me that the emergent conversation has thus far been unbalanced toward the urban context and has written off the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas as hopelessly lost in the grips of fundagelicalism. I’d like to see more pieces about emergence in Grand Rapids and elsewhere. That’s the context for many of us (myself included, in suburban NC), and we do the cause a disservice if we make it (intentionally or not) reserved for urbanites.

  • Bill Bean

    I thought this Crouch’s article was helpful if not entertaining. The hair bit didn’t bother me. He’s got to try to find a way to make the article a little more interesting. Prior to this I didn’t even know who Rob Bell was and I thought I had almost fully emerged.To me it is a good sign that there really isn’t an emergent movement. See a related article at http://www.the-next-wave.org/stories/storyReader$407.I am surprised that the previous commenter thought there seemed to be too much of a slant in the emergent conversation toward the urban. I would have said the opposite. However, I would agree that the rural church seems to be absent in the conversation. In that setting emergent has something to do with killing weeds.

  • lisa

    I am not sure what can be seen as sick abour Maggi’s post – the *** gambit did not seem to work out that well, huh ?Her section on:Again, I’m left wondering at the fact that ALL the Emerging stuff in the USA seems harnessed very closely to Evangelical roots and theology, whereas in the UK it includes people who are still Evangelical deep down, some who used to be Evangelical but whose theology has dramatically shifted; and some who are ‘Emerging’ within a more Anglo-Catholic or Modern Liberal Catholic setting. This more varied mixture of theological point of view and liturgical over here perhaps makes Emerging less easy to pin down.really resonated with my own experience, Tony. Somehow it is difficult to move so much of the discussion from a POV that was formed singularly out the YM/’gellie explosion of the ’80s & ’90s to one that rfelects the full experience of the body of Christ.I dod agree with your final line:If we can’t all take a deep breath and learn something at a time like this, then we’re really screwed.which resonates with ****’s posting today: Weakness is the new strength. note to self: it is better to criticize hair than it is to criticize with an English accent.

  • tony

    Bob, how in the world can you say it’s difficult to move the discussion beyond evangelicalism??? The only ones who keep bringing it up are mainliners (and journalists)?I’m a congregationalist.

  • Anonymous

    I believe this us/them conversation, and trying to see through an objective lens is healthy. “Is Rob Bell one of us or not?” What would he have to do to join?

  • lisa

    Tony, as a disgruntled mainliner, I’d point out that so many of those involved in the ec conversation (particularly the mass market vehicles like conferences & books) start from a mindset that is primarily YM & ‘gellie circa late ’80s & ’90s. If you did not grow up in that (or at least around it), many of the threads or references make little sense, but the underlying hunger to re-envision the Kingdom and respond to God’s call resonates with Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbys….

  • Chris Enstad

    isn’t this just called The Reformation? And isn’t the Church called to be continually reforming herself? Why, then, all of the navel gazing?

  • draven

    I love how the mainstream Church always tries to fit everything into their box so that they can say they understand it and don’t have to think about it anymore.I tried to explain one time how I’m not Christian in the sense that they’re thinking, I’m a Jewish God-fearer who happens to believe Jesus is the Messiah (also probably not in the same sense they do). Then they proceeded to argue with me that I’m a Messianic Jew, despite my trying to explain that I’m not part of that Baptist movement.Trying to explain a different, non-mainstream way of being the Church has proven to be even more difficult.Thanks for your writings.

  • Chris Enstad

    No one has yet called Andy a liar. Did he see it or didn’t he?

  • Jon

    now i understand why you were hesitant to make this thing public

  • jen lemen

    tony, are you honestly struggling to see how someone from the outside would take the emergent conversation to be a primarily evangelical one??? or are you just hopeful that isn’t the case?on this one point alone, many once interested parties are moving on, and other sometimes much more substantial conversations continue at the edges. maggi is bold enough to say it outloud. plenty of others understand it’s safer to say it in private conversation. it isn’t always safe to make honest observations about emergent.(from someone who knows firsthand)

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never blogged before, but I thought I’d add my two cents worth about the Christianity Today article.Indeed the ways in which various gatherings/congregations/communities apply the “E” word is as varied as the individuals who lead them or as the art they try to display on their websites. From my perspective, it’s good that no one can really pin it down…instead everyone’s talking about it one way or another.As an artist, everyone (especially those who haven’t seen my work) tries to get me to explain my style or approach…ultimately (and I know not maliciously) they seek to fit me into some category from which they can have a frame of reference so that they can speak “intelligently” about it to others. What bothers me is the incessant effort to do just that. Why can’t the work just “be” (that word opens up another discussion).In light of that, and perhaps to give my own “defense” of Mars Hill Bible Church (Rob Bell’s gathering), I can’t believe that people in the “E” movement are categorizing “who’s in and who’s out” already…that’s really @#$%&% up! I know my perspective is narrow, but I did have the privilege of having lunch with Rob’s Lead Pastor, Steve Weber, this last summer. As one who has admired Rob’s approach to teaching and ministry for some years now it was an honor to meet with the one who keeps him “administrated.” Steve is coming from a fundamentalist background, in fact he founded a youth ministry program at a Christian universtiy, and is honestly wrestling with what church looks like today. I can’t believe that a church NOT being in a larger urban setting would be criticized for that very fact, but where this church is is the Reformed church capital of the world in some people’s eyes (Grand Rapids/Holland, MI) and is continually fighting the “that’s not the way we’ve done it before” stuff. Some call their church “heretical,” thousands love it, and too many try to “figure out” what it is that they do.A few points about this church and others like it:- I was never a regular at MHBC, but lived about 1.5 hours away and had the pleasure of attending 3 total times, but what impressed me most when I first encountered the church was that on it’s website’s list of staff, whose name do you suppose was on the bottom of the list? Rob’s. The figure head, founder, the one thousands flock to see and hear (even online) from around the world. He goes out of his way to avoid becoming a mega-church god. Not to mention the website contains nothing else about Bell other than his teachings recorded and available online.- The teaching is orthodox AND radically UN-orthodox.- The format is actually fairly traditional with singing and teaching, not obnoxiously trying to jump on the latest “WOW Worship” CD trends…by God they even sing hymns!- Steve Weber is one of the most provocatively humble leaders you’ll ever meet, and cares very much that they don’t get into a rut.- They have groups from all over come to their gatherings and ask about the “model for ministry” they use or have pioneered. To which Steve has to say, “uh…Jesus’…the Bible…” – they’re not out to become a “purpose driven” or “Willow Creek” or “Saddleback” modeled church and they have zero interest in starting one either. Thank God!- I doubt you will ever see Rob Bell write a book on ministry…- Humility, passion, doubt, orthodoxy, heresy…I guess, in my view, these aren’t bad things. Their approach is not Gospel, but the approach that is effecting lives in an area that in many ways has had it with the organized church. So 8-10,000 come on a Sunday, big deal – in Weber’s view it’s a revival of sorts and he’s more than willing to give it up when the Holy Spirit so moves.Mars Hill Bible Church is only one type of “E” Church, if I may be so bold to use the label. The message, indeed, must change…and I think that’s McClaren’s frustration with the movement he’s the figure head of…people can’t get past the “image” issue. Can’t we get beyond the “hair” thing? I find that the artists who are the most profound and provocotive are those who are themselves and in turn defy the stereotypes most of us have of some outcast type person…they don’t try too hard. We play “trendy” music, but it’s the same old message that alienates postmodern thinkers (sorry for using even that outdated word), we use props without any thought, but they always tell some trite solution driven/salvific message, we try to be “cool” and conversational but can’t shake that imperialistic instinct.Rob Bell’s and Steve Weber’s response to all this nonsense, I think, would be (in significantly kinder terms) “Who gives a flying @#$@!” My response to someone’s inquiry into my own artwork once was, “Don’t label me till I’m dead.” I don’t want to be lumped into any category; other than, say, Jesus’. The sad part is that I will inevitably be labeled, and the fact is that I’d rather be Emergent than Fundamentalist, but the question itself is pretty much the wrong question.There’s my first blog. Sorry for the length.


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