What does emergent mean to a parish church?

What does emergent mean to a parish church? August 8, 2015

Selfie by Lelanda Lee.

I’ve read enough about the Emergent Church to ask the question, “What does emergent mean” in the context of a parish church?

A dictionary defines emergent as something that is either coming into being or coming into prominence. Another dictionary defines emergent as newly formed and arising unexpectedly. A business dictionary defines emergent as only being knowable when the whole system is seen and understood. This Emerging Voices blog describes itself as a voice of Emerging Christianity, “riding a new wave of emergence.”

When I look at all the possible definitions for emergence, I am struck by the idea of emergence as something that happens gradually, even slowly, as a trend rather than as a sudden event in a moment in time . . . although the bias when talking about emergence is that it happens suddenly. My suspicion is that it is the noticing of the emergent trend that happens in a swift moment of recognition. However, the connecting of the observation with the recognition of what has been observed is what leads to the profound thought that “this is emergence.”

The labyrinth in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, in Chartres, France, which is the most copied labyrinth in the world. [Photo by Lelanda Lee]
Emergence also tends to be thought of as mandatorily progressive, or it’s not truly emergence. I would call that a bias that is not borne out by facts. When what is helping a church and its members to grow spiritually as well as in numbers and to attract new members is a return to the fundamentals of Christian education and formation, that is, by definition, not a progressive movement. Rather, it is a return to basics, to that which defines our core identity, and that which has worked in the church for millennia.

A labyrinth cake brought to a St. Stephen’s potluck as the parish prepared for the rector’s labyrinth-centered sabbatical. Upon his return, the congregation built its outdoors labyrinth on the church’s side yard. [Photo by Lelanda Lee]
In the case of my home parish, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Longmont, Colorado, we have built an outdoor labyrinth on our grassy side lawn, the outcome of our priest’s sabbatical focus on visiting labyrinths in Europe. Many of our neighbors, some of who belong to a home-based meditation group, have used the labyrinth in their devotions, and our occasional Full Moon Labyrinth Walks bring newcomers to join our evening walking meditations. The focus on labyrinths is a return to an older way of expressing spirituality in the company of others and a method of spiritual formation that speaks to the unchurched as well as to church members.

One could also ascribe a characteristic of being countercultural to the “return to basics” movement, since USAmerican culture generally tends to discard the old in favor of the new in its national obsession with consumerism, which espouses striving to discover new things to consume, and consumerism’s accompanying built-in obsolescence. Yet, St. Stephen’s has chosen to step backwards in time in order to reach out to a new generation of seekers. The use of labyrinths to aid prayer in Christian churches dates back to the early 4th century C.E.

The facade of the cathedral in Chartres, Frances, which houses the famous Chartres labyrinth at the back of its worship space. [Photo by Lelanda Lee]
I wonder . . . Perhaps the definition of emergence that the Christian church might better embrace is that emergence is the trend, over a period of time, to renew oneself with a systematic turning back to those activities and behaviors that will support the church and its members in their quest to become authentic followers of Jesus and to find joy in sharing this quest with others who do not yet know Jesus. Perhaps emergence is also about sweeping away the extraneous things that have bogged us down from being our authentic selves, so that we can re-emerge and come into prominence as our own true selves.

From that point of view, the business definition of emergence is an apt model. It says that the church’s emergence will only be knowable when the whole process that the church undertakes to transform itself is known and understood. In other words, we cannot divide and parse all the moving parts of being church and elevate or separate one part from the others. Being church and being the emergent church ultimately has to be about honoring our core, foundational principles, and viewing who we are and who we have become as a whole.

And being “Emerging Voices” on this blog is about each of us 31+ bloggers telling the story of Emerging Christianity from our own part of the whole, recognizing that it is only when the whole is encountered, recognized, and honored, that we are then truly part of the “new wave of emergence.” Each of us has the potential to add energy to that new wave.

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