Some Perspective on the Death of Emergent

This week and next, I’m preparing for my address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies on what emergence and Pentecostalism can learn from one another.  To remind myself of the religious landscape in America at the time of the birth of Pentecostalism, I turned to the trusty A Religious History of the American People by Sydney Ahlstrom.

Ahlstrom’s magisterial tome was first published in 1972.  In other words, he was researching and writing right in the thick of the Jesus Movement, and, as such, the Jesus Movement receives merely a footnote, on page 1086, amidst a section on the increasing secularism in Catholicism.  The movement is offered as an exception to that secularism.

The footnote is lengthy, mentioning charismatic revival among Protestants and Catholics, and “a penchant for guitars and rock music.”  But this, the final paragraph of the footnote, particularly got my attention,

The Jesus People soon gained widespread attention and provoked a deluge of published commentary, but their longterm significance cannot be known.  Whether they should be considered in a footnote (as here) is a question which only the future will answer.  To grim, tormented times they brought the blessings of love and joy; but there is no apparent reason for seeing them as an exception to the larger generalizations attempted in this chapter.  Yet surprises are the stuff of history.

Were Ahlstrom writing today, what do you suppose he’d put in a footnote about emergent/-ing?

  • http://LifeAsPrayer.wordpress.com Lisa

    (E)mergent: A kind of neo-Jesus People movement, that instead, utilized technology (internet, etc) to spread their ideas, and the occasional modern-style conference. Similarly self-absorbed, yet decidedly with a post-modern philosophical influence. An off-shoot of Evangelicalism, combined with ex-Fundamentalists gone rogue, and Liberal sympathizers. Defined largely but what it was not, yet never really making a new path, or a clean break, from the stereotypes in leadership, pedagogy, spiritual formation, and fundamental characteristics inherent in its religious predecessors, or those influences.

    Perhaps the movement would have been better served by being less of an open or emotional revolt, saturated in its contemporary culture steeped in revering celebrity and fad–and instead facilitating the rich communal traditions, and more historical church authority that have bolstered worldwide Christianity over millennia.

    Not an unworthy contribution to Christianity, but a meteoric one.

    ~lisa~
    lisadelay.com

  • http://www.MannsWord.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Truly, surprise is the stuff of history, so I don’t want to be too dogmatic in my assessment. But I think we have to do a little cost-benefit analysis. What are the contributions of Emergent – conversations, munchies in the sanctuary, non-judgmentalness for all (except perhaps the fundies), friendships based upon shared disappointments and critiques? What are the costs – conversation that doesn’t lead to conviction, skepticism without a new and truth-based vision, and a gutting of the Gospel of everything that isn’t politically correct, leaving ethical mandates without their necessary rationale? Hm?

  • Kenton

    The first part of the 3rd sentence is the meat and potatoes of the footnote. If it were emergent it would read, “To a hyper-rationalized hierarchically structured institutional church losing its young it offered openly accessible transcendence that brought them back…”

  • http://www.jakebouma.com Jake Bouma

    Forgive me for being sardonic, but I suppose it would say this:

    The ECM soon gained widespread attention and provoked a deluge of published commentary, but its longterm significance cannot be known. Whether they should be considered in a footnote (as here) is a question which only the future will answer. To grim, tormented times they brought the blessings of love and joy; but there is no apparent reason for seeing them as an exception to the larger generalizations attempted in this chapter. Yet surprises are the stuff of history.

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick Oden

    I think there are two perspectives on this. Going back to the Jesus People we can look at the movement itself, and see it now fairly limited. However, I think the influence of the Jesus People is profound. Christian contemporary music, and the contemporary worship chorus scene, radically affected the wider Christian world, transforming our gathered worship. Even Catholics sing worship choruses now.

    Denominations were given a major hit, as non-denominational communities were free to just begin and in doing that both denominational domination and distinction continued to crumble.

    We don’t think of denominations the same way now as people did in the mid-20th century.

    So, whatever happens to the official strands of Emergent, we probably will be able to see long term influence in missional approaches and more communal participation.

    Even more than this, however, I think emerging will last simply because of the breakdown not only of denominations in our era but also of free-standing churches themselves. There’s a significant amount of people who gather together in service and worship of Christ who do not have buildings or paid staff. With the societal loss of expectation concerning weekly worship attendance, there are people who will continue to exist and thrive outside any previously organized, formal, traditional church.

    And because this is not going to go away, as people are more free to both serve Christ in community while not committing to the oft dysfunction of churches, as they realize they don’t have to give up faith to be frustrated at the church, they’re going to keep gathering in various ways. So, these non-traditional communities need some kind of label to describe their loosely affiliated and similar patterns of Christian action.

    Emerging won’t redefine the church or end all traditional approaches. In a way, it is like the Protestant version of monasteries, and will likely continue to have the same sort of prophetic and holistic contribution alongside other expressions.

  • http://civilrites.blogspot.com Chris

    I was never intimately involved with the emergents, but interested in what people were/are trying to create. I got a feeling of the self-referential from the emergent services I attended in Minneapolis & Seattle, but this is the case at most churches, where people are often politely (or otherwise) bullied to introduce themselves as outsiders (a.k.a. “visitors”). Perhaps the footnote will read that the not-yet-dead emergents tried to re-image/update worship during a very challenging and pivotal time for the church.

  • spirit.friend

    Did Jesus have a church? Did he even create a church? He travelled around ministering to those in need, teaching his apostles and spreading the gospel that people are the children of a Heavenly Father, and by faith they could realize a profound relationship with their Father in heaven. Their faith would be demonstrated by an increased love for and service of their fellow man. Was Jesus an ‘emergent’? Wasn’t his gospel emerging from the Jewish culture, and taking on the eclisiastical authority of the then Saducees and Pharisees whose total control over their religionists caused them to remain in virtual servitude to the religious authorities? He came preaching freedom from the “system” and that all men (and women) could have a personal relationship with God. He preached to men and women. He dared to speak to women in a culture where that was strictly forbidden, thereby permanently acknowleging their spiritual equality.
    Chistianity has not always been as interested in preacing the gospel of Jesus in place of the gospel ABOUT Jesus, and perpetuating their own political and eclisiastic power as an institution. No society has ever consistently attempted to live as Jesus taught.
    “Christianity has indeed done a great service for this world, but what is now most needed is Jesus. The world needs to see Jesus living again on earth in the experience of spirit-born mortals who effectively reveal the Master to all men. It is futile to talk about a revival of primitive Christianity; you must go forward from where you find yourselves. Modern culture must become spiritually baptized with a new revelation of Jesus’ life and illuminated with a new understanding of his gospel of eternal salvation. And when Jesus becomes thus lifted up, he will draw all men to himself. Jesus’ disciples should be more than conquerors, even overflowing sources of inspiration and enhanced living to all men. Religion is only an exalted humanism until it is made divine by the discovery of the reality of the presence of God in personal experience.”
    The Life and Teachings of Jesus: Paper 195 “The Future of Christianity”

  • http://www.postmodernegr.com Anthony Smith

    Great question Tony. I have an interview today with Sojourners and this is one of the questions that will be asked. What’s interesting is that of late I’ve been wrestling with the relationship and incongruencies with my black storefront ne0-Pentecostalism and emergence Christianity.

    “Emergence Christianity soon gained widespread attention and provoked a deluge of published commentary, but their longterm significance cannot be known. Whether they should be considered simply a disputed entry in Wikipedia or an diverse catholic embodied form of faith that shook the basic assumptions of Christendom is a question which only the future will answer. To grim, tormented and globally connected times they brought us difficult questions, creative embodiedments of the faith, and helped us rummage through the table of 500 years of Christianity; but there is no apparent reason for seeing them as an exception to the larger generalizations attempted in this chapter. Yet surprises are the stuff of history.

  • Tim

    Everything dies.
    And I believe in resurrection.

    Try to save your life, you lose it.
    Lose your life, salvation follows.

  • Dan Hauge

    At this point, I’m thinking Emergent would be seen as a kind of Progressive Theology Resurgence–bringing the core of what liberal theology was around a century ago, but 1) responding in a primarily post-modern milieu instead of a modernistic one; 2) operating as an extra-denominational movement instead of primarily within the traditional denominations, and therefore able to have longer staying power and make more inroads into evangelical communities; and 3) making the most of social-networking technologies as it’s medium.

    I am aware that many emergents see even more difference between themseleves and the liberal theology/social gospel movements of a few generations ago, but especially in the last two or three years, I see the parallels increasing (particularly as process theology makes its own resurgence), and the increasing split between emergents and neo-calvinist types paralleling the social gospel/fundamentalist divide of that era.

  • Jules

    I would hope that the footnote would read something like this:

    “The Emergence Church seems much wider than its label and still cannot be truly defined. It seems Emergence Church maybe the final label but the environment in which the times are/were seemed to signal it was how the way things were and EC was the a sprout from it. As Spencer Burke once pointed to in his book “its palmolive, we are soaking in it.” So to understand what EC is would be to understand the culture and the environment in which the believers of its time lived, not the answer to the culture the world seemed to be.”

  • Dave H

    “The Emerging Church soon gained widespread attention and provoked a deluge of published commentary, and their longterm significance can certainly be known insofar as they helped grim, tormented Dave remain true to his faith in Jesus at a time when it was very, very difficult to do so.”

  • http://www.nascentthinker.org Jeremy

    I believe my imagined Ahlstrom would say something in line with the following:

    “The emerging church quickly gained widespread attention and provoked a deluge of published commentary, but their longterm significance cannot be known. Whether they should be considered in a footnote (as here) is a question which only the future will answer. To the downcast they brought hope, and to the rejected they brought acceptance. They called for society to change, and lived what they expected of others. Yet H. Richard Niebuhr words for liberalism ring true of the emerging church. There is no uniqueness, no power in their message. Ultimately, it will be their treatment of the man they admire – Jesus – that will speak of their lasting influence.


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