Lonnie Frisbee and the Non-Demise of the Emerging Church

Well, it seems that my long-time friend and occasional sparring partner, Andrew Jones (TSK), has (once again) said we’ve reached the end of the emergent/-ing church movement.  TSK’s ambivalence for the “emergent/-ing” language and the partnership that some of us in the States have with publishing houses is well known.  And I think it’s always dangerous to start to declare something over as an historian when one is still up to one’s ankles in it.

To be fair, TSK clarifies in a comment on the post when he writes that in 2009 the ECM became,

less radical and non-offensive but actually larger in scope and impact than it has ever been.

Let’s take those in reverse order.

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Hot Button Issues and Theological Polarization

Over Duke’s Call & Response Blog, sociologist Mark Chaves has posted an interesting graph and some reflections on it.  American politics has become more polarized of late, and sociologists attribute that not to a change a people’s viewpoints, but to the fact that the two political parties have placed hot button issues at the center of their agendas, thus forcing the electorate to once side or another.

Chaves wondered if, in the three mainline denominations dealing with homosexuality, the same thing was happening.  And, sure enough, it is.

Chaves writes,

In short, it seems that in the Episcopal Church, the PC(USA), and the ELCA, churches that lean in the conservative direction on homosexuality may have been pushed by national developments within these denominations to declare themselves to be more theologically conservative, even though their views may not have become more conservative over the last decade. If people within a denomination now are more likely to sort themselves into congregations based on those congregations’ stand on homosexuality, this could produce fewer churches with theologically middle-of-the-road identities. If churches are forced to choose sides on an issue, people will be more likely to choose churches based on which side they are on.

This seems a very reasonable conclusion to draw.

For me, that produces some sadness.  The church in which I was reared, and then served for seven years, was a yellow church.  “We’re centrist,” I heard from the pulpit several times when I was a pastor there, “Not the mushy middle, but centered on Christ and not thrown off course by one theological topic or another.”  And yet, I know that the pastor who preached that and the one who followed him were both asked the litmus test question, “What do you think about gays?” during the interview process.

That church is, once again, searching for a senior minister.  And, if Chaves is right about there being less centrist mainline churches, I bet there are also less centrist clergy candidates from which to choose.

The EMC as an NSM

Lots of talk around the blogosphere in the last couple weeks about the goodness or badness of the terms “emerging” and “emergent.”  To be quite honest, as I sit at our family cabin by the lake, listening to Canada geese fly over head and thinking about where I should grouse hunt today, it all seems rather silly.  Indeed, I’ve long held that this is an internecine debate.  I realize it seems earth-shatteringly important to some, but not to me.  As Scot pointed out in his post today, where we all go from here will have more to do with that to which God is calling us than to any labels.

One of the reasons that I think the movement at large (of which Emergent Village is a part) will not go away is that the Emergent/-ing Church Movement (ECM) is part of a much broader cultural reality in the West, what sociologists call New Social Movements.

Since the birth of sociology with Max Weber, and especially since Marx and Engels, all social movements were seen to be based on economic struggle — the proletariat overcoming their oppression by the bourgeois.  But a funny thing happened in the 1960s: America’s “new middle class” didn’t abide by these rules.  The civil rights movement, the GLBT rights movement, the environmental movement, the feminist movement — even the hippies — all seemed to be operating under a different rubric than the Marxist schema predicted.

Among the characteristics of NSMs are these:

  • Cultural and societal change is the goal, not the redistribution of wealth
  • Coalitions form from persons of different social status (think, for instance, of college-educated Jewish civil rights activists who joined blacks in the South)
  • “The personal is political” — in other words, personal choices (where one shops, what one eats, how much energy one consumes, etc.) have implications for the movement
  • There is a cynicism about the representative democracies in the West and their co-option by corporate forces
  • There is a great skepticism of hierarchies and bureaucracies and an effort to keep the movements egalitarian or “flat”

I could list another half dozen characteristics that sociologists have identified in NSMs, and they would fit with the EMC as well as these that I have listed.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think I’ll have much trouble arguing in my dissertation that the ECM is an NSM.

What that means for the current debates on the labels is simply this: the labels/names/brands mean very little.  As Doug noted recently, and as Phyllis’s book makes abundantly clear, there are broader cultural forces at play here.  Churchy people may think this is about theological or methodological innovation — or both — but it’s really not.  It’s really about new ways that human beings organize themselves, understand their world, and endeavor to change society.  The ECM is a religious iteration of a much larger phenomenon, and it’s not going away anytime soon…no matter what you call it.