Many of us in the emergent conversation have left institutional Christianity. We do not trust institutions and are suspicious of hierarchies. Our personal histories and experiences of Christianity are filled with the frustration caused by the disconnect between the truth claims of our religious Christian institutions and their actual lived existence. We have seen how much energy and money is spent in the maintenance of our institutions, instead of the mission of Jesus. Some of us have been traumatized by the church. These reasons, among many others, have caused many of us to leave institutional Christianity. But some of us in the emerging conversation have decided to stay.
I am what has been referred to as a hyphenated Christian, a person who has emerging sensibilities who remains part of the existing institutional church during this cultural upheaval known as the Great Emergence. I have found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church, and as such, I can be labeled an “Angli-mergent.” Let me be the first to say that my experience isn’t normative. I have friends who have been so traumatized by their church experience that they may never return to the Christian faith let alone any community of Christians. I understand. And besides issues of trauma, some of us will (many already are) strike out and explore the Christian faith outside of any thing resembling established denominations. I have been on a similar trajectory before, and I want to share some thoughts from the hyphenated perspective with the hope that it could further the emerging conversation, while also helping those who are still looking for a spiritual home.
Letting go of a vision of the idealized early church has helped me to find a home in Christianity. I attended a small Southern Baptist church in high school that described itself on its website as a community that worshiped like the first century church. I didn’t realize how much of my disappointment with church had to do with this unrealistic vision of what the early church was like. I imagined the early church as a unified, pure community of Christians, but the reality is that the early church was made up of people like you and me and experienced controversies, disagreements, and broken relationships. The ideal of the early church was a standard that I used to measure traditional and untraditional Christian communities that I was a part, and it always left me disappointed. Letting go of this ideal helped me claim and love the actual Christian community around me. I love how Frederich Buechner compares the church to Noah’s ark in his book Whistling in the Dark:
In one as in the other, just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese; some meek as lambs and others fire-breathing dragons. There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop. Most of them have no clear idea just where they’re supposed to be heading or how they’re supposed to get there or what they’ll find if and when they finally do, but they figure the people in charge must know and in the meanwhile sit back on their haunches and try to enjoy the ride.
It’s not all enjoyable. There’s backbiting just like everywhere else. There’s a pecking order. There’s jostling at the trough. There’s growling and grousing, bitching and whining. There are dogs in the manger and old goats and black widows. It’s a regular menagerie in there, and sometimes it smells to high Heaven like one.
The church is a messy and dirty place, no matter if you experience it in a living room, a pub, or in some cathedral. If you experience it today or if you were able to travel back in time to the first century, you will be disappointed if you expect anything other than what it is–a collection of people who have had an experience of Christ who are trying to sort it out and often fail while trying.
The church is a beautiful thing. It is an awful thing. It can be these and more because it is a human thing. We bring into the church what we are: all of the good and bad. St Macarius says this about the human heart:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.
When all of these hearts, which contain all things, come together, even in the name of Christ, there will be opportunities for deep gratitude and also deep hurt. It’s unavoidable. We are Paul and Peter, apostles of Christ, who have a huge, public confrontation in front of the church because we have different theologies about how to follow God. We are the early church in Acts who shares all things in common, but has a problem with unjust food distribution because we don’t know how to let our bond in Christ transcend our issues with cultural diversity. We are Paul and Barnabas, called to spread the good news of God’s reconciliation work, who disagree so sharply over a relationship that we have to part ways.
Wherever you are in your journey through the Great Emergence, please don’t stop searching for your community. Keep seeking because we can’t make this journey on our own. And that is good news and bad news because we are a gift to each other, but we are also sometimes a burden. But this has always been the case and this may actually be great news, because once we can accept the church for what it is, maybe we can find our place in it.