Reply to Kurt Willems on, “Is the church still emerging?”

Reply to Kurt Willems on, “Is the church still emerging?” October 5, 2012

After leaving the following comment on his blog, I wanted to follow up on this important question:

An Emergence authority like Phyllis Tickle would say definitively yes. It’s the topic of her latest book Emergence Christianity

On Patheos, Kurt Willems has recently brought up the issue about emerging churches here and here, which struck me as an emergent Christian. What does the adjective mean? My opinion is not authoritative, nor definitive, since this community has a multi-vocal nature. But it deserves attention in regard to the quandary Mr. Willems and others have when determining the nature of emergence.

I am a loner of sorts who wandered into emergence through the Southern California terrain dominated by such towering emergent-haters like Chuck Smith and John MacArthur. Their vitriol makes my faith even more emergent — and vibrant.

The challenge in describing emergence lies in its intention. Emergence as a descriptor is philosophical not institutional. Counting churches, cohorts or official members doesn’t work. The debate is a qualitative one.

How much has emergence shaped Christian thought? Consider the impact the following forces and you will be surprised to see how far reaching it is. I would be remiss to attribute them entirely to emergence, but it can be argued strongly that emergence is a social force behind each one.

1. A renewal of liturgical worship and artistic celebration

2. Social Justice

3. Bi-vocational pastors

4. Non-violent metaphysics

5. Global diversity in theological and ecclesial leadership

6. Gender inclusiveness

7. Alternate theories of atonement

8. the hell debate

9. the evolution debate

10. the nature of God debate

11. the nature of Scripture / questioning of inerrancy debate

Not to mention Brian McLaren’s place in the scope of the conversation. These areas of Christian experience have been firmly shaped by emergence.

In reply to Mr. Willems, I contend this qualitative dynamic doesn’t make emergence irrelevant or dying. The movement has permeated many communities — many of which would be appalled to know their attempts to be relevant or to reach Gen-Xers or Millenials are rooted in emergent thought.

Albeit an anecdotal note, I find it rather significant that as unlikely as it may sound a Southern Californian Baptist megachurch that I’ve attended over the past five years sporadically has a social justice program, a strong focus on outreach to low class communities, offers yoga classes and hosts an international church. All of which can be rooted in progressive, emergent and missional influences. Despite my philosophical issues with the ecclesial model I see hope in this conservative,  Evangelical community embracing, unbeknownst to most, an emergent paradigm of outreach and inter-religious understanding.

In sum, yes the church is still emerging and no you are not going to be able to use the sociological rubrics often used to categorize other Christian movements. It is a paradigm shift that has shaped the entire Christian world –Catholic, Mainline, Evangelical, Progressive, Pentecostal, and Non-Denominational.

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  • I’ve begun to think that the impact of emergent could be analogous to the impact of the charismatic movement a few decades ago. There are self-identifying “charismatic” churches around, but simply counting them is no way to gauge the influence of charismaticism. The way just about every evangelical church in America worships has been shaped by charismaticism, whether it self-identifies as charismatic or not. I think the same can be said (or will be said) about emergent. There may be just a handful of “emergent churches” but the impact of emergent thought will be widespread, and eventually, taken for granted.

  • Interesting perspective, Mike. I have found that 10 of the 11 points of Emergence you bring up, I have found to be present in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The only one that really doesn’t apply is #1, because liturgy has been their from the beginning. I can say that there is a resurgence of daily services, which has long been only the practice of monasteries. I will qualify my first statement about the EOC by saying that those 11 points are manifested differently than in the Emergants, since we not only claim historic continuity, but Apostolic authority. Those may seem like arrogant claims, but when you look at how they are understood, and exercised (or at least how they are supposed to be exercised) it is very comforting, and is grounded in humility.

    • I agree Eastern Orthodoxy historically underlies emergence, but what I didn’t include is the influence of 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians like A.N. Whitehead, Jacques Derrida, J.F. Lyotard, Jurgen Moltmann, James Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Cobb, the Jesus Seminar and so many others. These individuals have provided many of the philosophical foundations which have enabled emergence to bridge in the 21st century as a viable alternative to Protestantism.

      • You are right. The philosophy of emergence is far different that Eastern Orthodoxy, for the reasons I stated above.

  • One thing I’ve noticed (increasingly?) among emergents is that we are not here to pick a fight with conservative evangelicals, but to be also a part of that community. If it’s your relationship with your SoCal Baptist Megachurch, my relationship with my local Nazarene church. I see this a lot.

  • That’s so true. I find the aggression a one way phenomenon as well. Maybe we’re okay with ourselves and the others are wrestling with how to engage us? Funny to think of ourselves as “the Others” since it’s our preoccupation with humanity at large.

  • Steve

    My hope and prayer is that in the era of the internet, the modern church will have no choice but to tackle these difficult questions.

    If the progressive church can reclaim the ground on the evolution debate, this opens the door for the inerrancy / nature of scripture discussion.

    Hopefully through this, we will be able to paint a more coherent picture of God and one that is more faithful to the character of God we see reflected in Jesus.

  • Appreciated the 11 point list pointing to continuing “emergence.” I also found it interesting that our Fellowship has been dealing with these issues since the mid 1970’s and probably will be for decades more if we continue to exist. Sometimes we have done so quite successfully, and sometimes in much more difficult and painful processes. We haven’t been too connected to the emergence movement, but probably should be and should have been sooner. Still not sure how one becomes connected. The reading we have done – Wright, Borg, Brueggemann, Bell, McLaren, McKnight, Dunn, Bauckham, Boyd, etc. are staples. Less impressed with the Jesus Seminar’s one sided approach. Certainly find Hartshorne to have some powerful insights into the nature of God. Love to see the developing theology of Richard Twiss. But, this reading doesn’t really connect us with people outside our city. How does that happen? When I retire as pastor, where would we find theologically and pastorally trained women or men with a willingness to struggle honestly with these kinds of issues and willing to be pastorally practical in dealing with members who differ with them to both the right and the left?

    I know they can perhaps fit under some of the 11 categories, but I am somewhat surprised that (1) environment/creation, (2) same sex relationships, (3) what is “church,” (4) political stances (5) Trinitarian theology – nature of Jesus as “the human” who is God-with-us were not added to the list. These are all huge issues in the current attempt to come to grips with following Jesus in the real world of the 21st century.

  • Ron,

    Thanks for your additions to the list. These were by no means definitive. I wholeheartedly agree that emergence extends.

    I am grateful for Phyllis Tickle’s Emergence Christianity for its tremendous historic perspective and insights. Phyllis knows I’m a huge fan, but I’ve got to say it again.

  • thanks for your thought Mike. I’m just seeing this post now. I hope she continues to emerge, looking more like the resurrected Jesus!

    • Kurt,
      I’m not to familiar with your background, but do you see emergence qualitatively as well? Is it a religious force or new institution in your estimation? Thanks for replying and I appreciate your passion for the resurrection. That’s my heart, too.

  • Peter

    I am heartened by the emergent church movement which I think has parallels in the more liberal side of Roman Catholicism too.
    My interest in Near Death Experiences (having read 1,000’s of accounts over the past 35 years and talked with patients and others about these (I am a medical practitioner) – suggests that the experiences of these sojourners to the other side of the veil equates with all the biblical verses that boil down to God is Love. That hell is likely to not be eternal and reflect the focus of the lost soul and not any judgemental damnation by God. That what matters in life reviews is how we love others and how we love God. That all sentient beings are at a deep level joined and all exist within the triune God – there is no separation apart from the illusions we create in this world and the world’s beyond birth and death.

    The emergent church movement jells with what NDEs seem to be telling us.

    The fundamentalist focus on God’s justice, wrath and judgmentalism with picking of scriptures to back this and a rigid clinging to concrete literalism in scripture interpretation – is in reality an immature psychological, intellectual and spiritual phase – indicative of the early Hebrews time in history and of a large segment of today’s population in terms of studies of levels of moral development. It is a phase still permeated by fear. Fear is the opposite to Love and creates separation or at least the illusion of it.

    So hopefully the emergent church emphasis on love and inclusion continues to spread throughout Christendom.