Is the Emerging Church Relevant? [Liveblog]

This week I’m at AAR/SBL, and I’m liveblogging some of the sessions I’m attending. This session is sponsored by the Critical Research in Religion group, and it’s called, “Is the Emerging/-ent Church Relevant?”

Xochitl Alvizo of Boston University gave the first presentation, Is the Emerging Church Important from a Feminist Practical Theological Perspective? Her thesis is that the few hipster white men who make up the popular perception of the Emerging Church Movement [ECM] are effectively erasing the truth, that the ECM is a large group of diverse people who are questioning church practice and theology. To imagine the ECM as a deconstruction of conventional church means to move beyond the high profile names and to, in the words of John Caputo, “Make the impossible happen.” This is exactly what feminist theologians have been doing since Mary Daly in the 1960s. The ECM can be measured in its success by this same metric as feminist theology. Alvizo studied 12 congregations to see if they are what they say they are: relational, organic, and inclusive. She looked for the congregations’ ability to question their own embedded patriarchal habits. Her findings are not yet complete, and she is analyzing her results. But two of the most pressing questions so far are, 1) the structure of the ordained clergy. Traditionally, the ordained clergy have a monopoly of the teaching and the power, disempowering the laity and keeping the liturgy from being the work of the people. Alvizo has found that ECM clergy are renegotiating these roles and attempting to subvert the traditional clergy roles. And 2) the relationship between ECM congregations and denominations. She has found that while some ECM churches are attached to denominations, they are often uncomfortable with the patterns of authority in those denominations. Shenandoah Nieuwsma, of the University of North Carolina and Elon University presented, Certain of the Uncertain: The Emerging Church’s Quest for Authenticity and Meaning through Aesthetic Experience in the Technological Age. Millenials, she says, are unusually open to nuance and gray in truth claims. Her students at Elon seem always to be asking, “What does this have to do with me?” Millennials want to decipher truth through their own senses. As such, the ECM’s commitment to seeking truth through aesthetics may have special currency among millennials. Nieuwsma then talked about a particular congregation, Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina. Direct bodily experience more than taught intellectual content reveals truth in this congregation. She particularly pointed to the church’s artistic philosophy and their practice of détournement. That is, “conversion and therapy” groups take pieces of art and subvert them, using them for the exact opposite reason than their original intent. She concludes by saying that the ECM deserves more attention at AAR for several reasons, including its commitment to democratic negotiation and aesthetic truth. Next was Randy Reed, Appalachian State University, The Southern Strategy: The Potential for Emerging Church Recruitment among Southern Millennials. Reed started by painting a picture of the religiosity of Southerners. What’s been found by researchers is that millennials are dropping their affiliations both with evangelicalism and with the church writ large, and this is true as much in the South as anywhere. So, shouldn’t the ECM be attractive to Southern millennials? Potentially, yes. when he gave quotes from ECM leaders to Southern millennials in focus group, there was significant receptivity to those quotes. Openness and questioning were seen as positive aspects of the message of the ECM. When it came to the Bible, it was both compelling and problematic. The groups were shown a short video in which Brian McLaren compares the Bible to either a constitution or a library. Some found this very attractive, but others thought this was the place where the ECM went over the line. Making the text the locus of authority is deeply problematic, Reed says, since a text does not interpret itself. What is really authoritative is a community and its interpretation of the text. But a mainline, liberal initiative that downplays the importance of the text will not work. Instead, the ECM could make forays into the South since it both takes the text seriously but also employs a postmodern hermeneutic toward the text. Finally, Michael Zbaraschuk of Pacific Lutheran University presented, Playing Defense or Offense? The Theological Playbook of the Emergent/ing Church, with Some Armchair Quarterbacking. He admits that he went into the preparation of his paper thinking that he would be very critical of the three people he studied: Rob Bell, Peter Rollins, and Your Favorite Blogger. But instead, he found more depth than he was expecting, and more implicit critique. Bell wears his seminary training lightly, says Zbarachuk. He is sympathetic to process thought, and he’s resonant with Pannenburg. He has a “process sensibility” in his writings. What is Bell post-? He has not, for instance, given up on the Bible as a grand narrative, so he can’t be properly called a postmodernist. Bell has also said that our interpretations are getting better, making him almost a hypermodernist who believes in progress. In general, Bell is on the offensive. Next, he talked about me. I’m going to skip writing about this part, since it’s too weird. He said I’m balanced between offense and defense. Finally, Pete (who’s sitting next to me). Pete is not playing offense or defense. Pete has abandoned the Biblical narrative and is playing a different game altogether. Questions from Zbaraschuk:

  1. Is the ECM just another version of consumerism?
  2. Is the ECM just as reliant upon big name personalities as other movements?
  3. Is the ECM really as radical as ECMers would like it to be? He used my metaphor of “feral Christians” from The New Christians to ask this question.
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  • Dustin

    Hi Tony, I’m a constant lurk here, but I felt compelled to respond to this. I’ll be 30 in six weeks, and I attended Bible college (Toccoa Falls College) in rural Georgia for a degree in missions. Raised between an independent Baptist church and the C&MA, I was pretty conservative going in. Thankfully, my (right-of-center/conservative-ish) missions profs enjoyed breaking our paradigms, and threw me for quite a theological loop. After many of my cultural studies courses, I found the answers provided by most of my Bible/Theology profs to be sorely lacking due to the culturally embedded paradigms they were blind to in their theology.

    Enter the ECM, which hit me and some of my more-philosophically-minded friends like a bombshell. In response to a theology major’s post titled “Postmodernism is Heresy,” a good friend of mine wrote “Postmodernism is Necessary.” He was hugely influenced by Rob Bell, and considered “Velvet Elvis” to be the book that saved his faith during that period of his life. I devoured everything by McLaren and Bell, and both of us turned a substantial theological corner during this period.

    In the past two years, my friend has declared himself an atheist, and I am pursuing ordination in the Church of the Nazarene. I went on to Fuller (Arizona campus) for an M.A. Theology after Bible college. At this stage in my life, I pick up texts by emergent authors, and I’m generally unmoved (though I look forward to your “Did God Kill Jesus” text!). It seems that the ECM met us in a particular
    time and place, helped us transition or morph or transform or something, and
    was then largely discarded one way or another.

    This leads me to wonder: does the “conversation” focus of the ECM set the stage for it to be a transitional movement at best? Besides my friend from college, I know several people from that time period who interacted with the ECM who have now drifted into other ecclesial/theological/nonbelief waters.

    -Is the ECM institutionalizing, and if so, does it (yes, I know it’s not a monolithic “it”) really want to institutionalize?

    -If it doesn’t institutionalize, will it survive?

    -Does the ECM want to survive? And if so, what is its rationale for survival?

    Your recent post on atheism got me thinking along these lines again, after the germ was planted in me during your blog posts regarding your dissertation topic from a couple years back (when you were working on it/”The Church is Flat” publication era postings).

    • http://mattjonesphotos.com Matt

      Very well thought out response. That part about rationale for survival was excellent. I am not ECM and never really have been, but have always been interested in the churches dynamic response to cultural needs, which has naturally led me to be interested in the ECM.