Emerging, Version 2.0

Emerging, Version 2.0 December 28, 2011

Steve Knight has an interesting perspective on how the emergent folks and participatory church are connected.

In an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner describes his feelings as he faces the holiday season as a religious “none,” as in “none of the above.” Weiner is currently “unaffiliated,” but he writes, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.”

That hopeful note is followed by a description of the kind of religion Weiner would like to see in the world (and particularly the United States):

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”

I would like to suggest to Weiner — were we sitting together at Starbucks or Caribou having a conversation over a cup of joe — that for more than a decade, the emerging missional church movement has been seeking to agitate for and begin to construct such a path. My friends and colleagues who have been the architects and thought leaders of this movement may not be so bold as to claim that title or status as “the Steve Jobs of religion,” but I’d like to be bold enough to say that Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, and Peter Rollins (among others) have each, in their own way, played this role to some extent.*

And I’d like to suggest that faith leaders — from across denominations and traditions — need to begin reflecting deeply on this idea of participation. What Weiner calls “highly interactive” and “experimental.” It’s essentially the same message that Landon Whitsitt wrote about earlier this year in his bookOpen Source Church, and it’s an idea that Dr. Ryan Bolger, from Fuller Theological Seminary, has been playing with recently, as well (see video below).

In an interview with Luther Seminary, Bolger suggests** that we are now living in a post-postmodern era that is characterized primarily by the participatory nature of the Internet and technology culture that has shaped it:

Bolger says, “The shift from postmodernity to participatory culture means people find their identity through what they create as opposed to maybe what they consume. … Our churches are still structured in such a way that we do it to them, not inviting them to create worship with us. So, if that’s the case, there’s really no space for people who’ve been formed by our participatory culture in our churches.”

Bolger’s provocative comments, coupled with Whitsitt’s book and Weiner’s op-ed in the Times, beg the question: Who will create the religious communities of the future that will engage participatory people?

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  • There is a TON to think about here.

  • I agree with Knight that a part of the Church has been moving towards this for some time.

    It seems, however, that we keep coming back to Sunday morning as our experience and singing as our worship. We’ve got to let both of those ideas die in order to move in to the future.

    I disagree with Bolger (though I love his Hobbit name). Not about our participatory culture, just his conclusion or application. I don’t want to participate with the pilot of the jet I’m in as we cross the Atlantic. Neither do I want to participate with my surgeon or be able to tweet the judge during a trial. While the current trend is certainly touched by this electronic phenom it’s no new thing (“a show of hands please”, “someone want to make a motion?”). Participation yes, having a cooperative hand in every experience of my life – no.

    The future will require us to dismantle the church experience as we’ve known it. For many years it will mean having two “versions” of church running side by side (the PCs and the Macs if that helps the analogy – but more like VHS and Beta for us old-timers) until those who will only ever be PC compatible give way to the sheer number of Mac users who will connect with culture in a whole new way. But it can’t be done all at once. Some of us will always be Mac people working as missionaries to PC people because they are not capable of learning a new OS. And that’s o.k.

    I believe God is doing this – and many are participating – both inside and out of the local church experience.

  • I couldn’t agree more. It is amazing to think of how participatory the church was, as described in the NT, starting with the Gospels. Unfortunately, traditional/modern churches bemoan the lack of participation but are set up to discourage it at every turn (pulpit-to-pew preaching, professional staff hierarchies, etc.). I am fortunate to be a participant in a small, organic, house church community where there is shared decision-making, all use their gifts (such as teaching where several take turns), interactive discussion is part of each teaching and a meal is a part of every gathering. In between gatherings (which are about twice a month) most of us are busy impacting the community in different ways and getting together 1:1 or in smaller gatherings just to share life together. What I’ve just described has been a very tangible outgrowth of my own experience with the emerging/missional movement.

  • Richard

    So what happens when our participation causes us to look at God in new ways, or rather to pick up sideline perspectives of orthodoxy and bring them more to the center?

  • Tony B

    For a bit of prophecy, try “Behold The Spirit” by Alan Watts……it was Jobs religion before there ever was a Steve Jobs

  • MattR

    A participatory ecclesiology has been one of the cries of the emerging/missional church this whole time! Glad people are picking up on it.

    I would also add, some of us are experimenting with ancient liturgical forms… this was a way our fathers and mothers in the faith created space for participation.

  • T


    Yes. Participation is one of the things that the emerging church is seeking, even if the search has its challenges and failures.

    A few examples are constantly on my mind on this front: Alpha (with it’s mix of lecture, small group discussion and a meal), support groups (where they have both speaker meetings and discussion meetings and one-on-one mentoring, all geared toward [re]formation), and, of course, the early church, where it appears from Acts and the epistles that there were opportunities for several folks to teach and even prophesy, but with discussion. Even the best college classes are much more participatory than typical church teaching.

    We’re going to have to make substantial progress along these lines if mission to a Western culture is our call.

  • Thanks for these links, Scot. You pose a key question there. I’ve been scratching my head on it ever since You Lost Me came out. I’d love to start an “Unchurch” based on the opposites of Kinnaman’s six factors that often alienate people who have grown up in a traditional church. But where to begin? I haven’t found the answer to that one yet. Nor do I know what such a community would look like.

    Peter Rollins (Insurrection) is doing all he can to encourage the formation of new communities. The catch is, as Richard suggests @4, is that it is not only the forms of the community that need to be new, but also the message. The folks you mention, Scot, who have been playing the role of a Steve Jobs of religion have a freshness to the content of their Christianity. This attracts not only constructive interaction but, even more, negative criticism and even rejection.

    Hopefully Fuller President Richard Mouw’s ringing affirmation of Rob Bell, and invitations to Peter Rollins – by Trinity Lutheran Seminary here in Columbus – will help many in the Evangelical community to explore uncharted territory and make room in the in for a new kind of family. There is such a growing vitality to this movement that its virtual community must sooner or later be incarnated in real life in various ways.

  • Paul Johnston

    Or you could just be authenticly Catholic.

  • T


    Classic! I think there’s some truth to that, but I don’t see the formality of Catholicism, particularly the division b/n priest and laity as creating the kind of participation in mind here.

  • Paul Johnston

    T, the discussion you prepose would probably takes us far from the thrust and intention of this thread but I would say that the Catholic model of one “royal priesthood”of all believers containing a ministerial priesthood is, though different in kind and form, rooted in the Levitical tradition of the Old Testament and a reasonable and relatively immediate interpretation of the Apostolic model provided by the New Testament.

  • Don

    I like Brian’s image of pilots & surgeons & expertise. Has the church become much like the academy with a few doing it to the many and those few are in the safety of tenure? My concern with this process is that those who cry for more participation do not bring with it commitment beyond the moment of the conversation. It’s all so much “for now” or “for a while” and then they head off to a newer adventure. But, there needs to be a bigger table with more invitations.

  • Dana Ames

    This is certainly the appeal of “new monastic” type communities and house/”alternative” churches, and it’s a very strong appeal. In the not-so-distant past, ordinary life provided the sense of community and church life was part of that. Now, ordinary life is so disjointed and people so mobile and the social “atmosphere” is not conducive to connection.

    The Northumbria Community was a great help to me in my “wilderness wanderings”. They also pointed me toward the wisdom of the Desert Fathers & Mothers.

    I was looking for a theologically-supported community that would engage a participatory person: me 🙂 I expected that my path would lead forward into the future, but was surprised (and a little alarmed at first) to find that, rather, my path led backward through history.

    Plenty of are traversing that path, either to an authentic expression of Roman Catholicism, as per Paul Johnston above, or back beyond 1054… (some going the other way, too…) For some of us, it’s not about finding an authority, but rather finding a theology/community that is an organic whole.


  • Comments #9 & #10 anticipating my response. I don’t think it gets much more participatory that sacramental Christian liturgy. It’s a participation, though, that resists technology. And we don’t create the way we participate in the liturgy. In the liturgy we receive the way of interacting with and worshiping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as we offer and receive the body and blood of Jesus.

    I’m concerned about reaching people, and appearing relevant or attractive. But I’m suspicious of using two-dimensional screens to reach three-dimensional people.

    These are far from complete thoughts on a subject that is worthy of them.

    Blessed Christmastide.


  • Dana Ames


    I’m smiling, ’cause I used to think that too. Catholic teaching is as Paul describes. For the Orthodox view, which has similarities and also some real differences (mainly, as far as I understand it, because of the view of how the Holy Spirit works in/through the Church), I commend to you Fr Thomas Hopko’s talks here:




  • DRT

    Paul Johnston, please elaborate…Catholic?

  • len

    James Brownson wrote in a short piece about eight years ago..

    “When Jesus speaks about the gospel, he uses the term primarily to refer to the kingdom of God or the reign of God…

    “The gospel is first of all about God’s faithfulness, about God’s triumph over death, and about God’s new purposes for the world that are revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These biblical patterns distinguish themselves in subtle but important ways from our North American ways of speaking about the gospel. Whereas we tend to speak about the gospel in terms of terms of its impact upon our lives, the Bible tends to speak of the gospel as a revelation
    of who God is and what God is doing and has done in the world.

    “The difference envisioned here is substantial. It involves the basic change from viewing salvation as something we receive (or, to use the dominant North American metaphor, something we consume), to viewing salvation as something in which we participate. When the Bible speaks about the gospel, it speaks primarily about who God is and what God is doing, because salvation in the full biblical sense means participating in God’s saving purpose for the whole world.

    “First Peter 2:9 expresses this reality succinctly: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” The people of God are a chosen race, so that they may proclaim God’s mighty acts, so that they may join the celebration, rejoicing in and announcing to others what God has done in Christ. As the GOCN has affirmed for some time, the Bible does not regard the
    church as a vendor of religious services to be received by religious consumers, but as a body of people sent on God’s
    mission to the world.”

  • RJS

    Don (#12),

    The academy isn’t “a few doing it to the many”. The academy has a goal of making peers out of students. Students grow through the interaction with a new set continually coming through and moving on.

    Church is something different … it should be participatory in a more fundamental way because we shouldn’t expect people to pass through and out grow the church. But you are right, I think, that those who cry for more participation do not bring with it commitment beyond the moment of the conversation. They retain the right to head off to a new adventure when the fancy strikes. This is a problem.

  • T

    I’m not anti-Catholic, or anti-liturgical for that matter. Much, much more could be said praising liturgical practices from Catholic, Orthodox and even Anglican traditions and their relatives. All that said, if one can read the initial post and think that Weiner and those like him are yearning for exactly those liturgical traditions (or any typically protestant or even low-church traditions) and have only somehow failed to encounter them, I think this would be a misreading what’s being said. With the post’s author, I hope “faith leaders — from across denominations and traditions — . . . begin reflecting deeply on this idea of participation.” I hope that both high and low church leaders can do more than simply say to themselves, “That’s us! We’re already participatory!”

  • DRT

    My perspective

    Regular church is concerned with teaching, imparting etc. Having certain people lead. The new society involves everyone leading at some point (it no longer makes sense to say women can’t teach/lead), everyone can have a say, everyone has unique perspectives. Value diversity.

    Traditional religion centers around conformity, Scot’ you can’t be too conservative. They want to control the situation and impart their wisdom.

    Now I know that many of you will say that I am off base, but I ask you to try and see it from my perspective because there are others like me.

    Participatory is a good word, but it still has too much of a bias toward the existing aristocracy in the church setting. The university is a place where participation is good. The church is a place were being equal is good.

  • EricW

    The Orthodox and Catholic Churches’ priesthood and doctrine of the priest and the Eucharist are at odds with what is being proposed here. Sacerdotalism is the Old Covenant revived, not replaced.

  • Nathan

    I would contend that this is provocative and challenging only for the segment of evangelicals who are woefully unawares or openly disdainful of liturgical traditions that are participatory to the core…

    Every sunday I was able to follow the rubrics of the BCP, infused with the particularized concerns and names of the community during prayers of the people, along with the particularized music to the parish itself (we had a very creative parish that generated new music, modernized sung psalmody, etc.), AND was able to get on the same page as most Xians following the lectionary, etc. etc. I was able to be a part of creating something that was enjoyed deeply personal worship that deepened the local parish identity and reinforced our connection with the larger church of the diocese, nation, and globe.

    Instead of rejecting these practices and the operationalized catholicity of them, evangelicals would do well to immerse themselves in these practices while adapting them with the best of the practices of the alt.worship types of the last 20years, the emerging church, etc. etc. etc. etc. Creating new ones, re-appropriating and discovering the old…

    Furthermore, I think we ought to problematize the foundational assumptions behind “participatory” if we’ve just traded one kind of self-absorption through consumption for self, self, self, self, self via creativity.

    Christ died for the Church–it’s an inescapably collective and communal reality…not the mere aggregate of individuals who happen to be in the same room…and it’s not about me, it’s about a “we”.

  • Chris

    A quote from Al Mohler (that is–Participate in person),
    “But, you know, all that to say, YouTube is a bad place to go to church. I’m very thankful for the technological revolution that’s made so much accessible. There’s no excuse, we were just talking, there’s no excuse for not hearing Biblical preaching. You think, John MacArthur just gave everything away, thousands of sermons, just there on Grace to You, you can find them. You can find many faithful preachers whose materials are there. Go to Ligonier, go elsewhere, I mean there is just tons of wonderful stuff, rivers of health. But it’s a lousy place to go if you’re not discerning and if you just go for hero worship, and are just looking, saying ‘I want to do, this guy is cool I want to be like him.'”

  • phil_style

    I attended a catholic mass on Christmas day, in a tiny village in Bavaria. The little church was completely full. Just about the whole village turned out.

    For large parts of the service the congregants carried out all manner of tasks and interacted with each other through the liturgy in ways that simply don’t exist in the churches of my youth (evangelical). It was really interesting to me to watch as the priest disappeared behind a wall whilst everyone else recited scripture in his “absence” and sung with a beautiful, but tiny choir.

    This was about as participatory as I’ve experienced. And it was jolly good fun too.

  • Paul Johnston

    Hey Dana,

    I think Fr. Gregory points us in the right direction. The Eucharistic celebration IS church. Taking its cue from John 6 (The Bread of Life Discourse) and the Last Supper, authentic Catholic/Orthodox worship understands the real presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the true intention and purpose of our gathering in His name. The superabundant grace of Calvary happening not only just once in time but mystically by the will of the Father, His most Holy Son our Lord jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit, once through time. In this way His promise to be with us always is fulfilled.

    As Father Gregory so economically and eloquently states, the “third demension”; the mystical presence of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    Imagine (and I believe as many Catholics are in need of re-imagining) you are before the real presence of the Lord. Everything changes. Suddenly you, me, we are no longer the focus. His participation is all that matters, all that is truly “there”.

    As long as our attentions are focussed on what we are doing as church as opposed to what our Lord is doing in and through us, we remain forever trapped in our material existence, bound by the limits of self and sin.

    Heaven does exist here on earth. It is present in the Eucharistic celebration. It is here for us all, if we want it.

  • Dianne P

    Thank you Dana and Paul for those comments. I’m currently exploring EO – attempting to understand why I see my faith so differently than those around me – and coming to realize that my upbringing in the Eastern Catholic church was profoundly powerful in shaping my view of God.

  • Paul Johnston

    Forgive me, my response @ 25 should be addressed to DRT….somebody needs his glasses 🙂

  • Paul Johnston

    Your welcome, Dianne. His blessing be with you on your journey.

  • Diane

    While the liturgy is wonderful, I think for many, there’s a craving and hunger for more. To say the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem can be considered participating in democracy (or the ball game), but for many these things alone are not enough. People want to help shape their church communities.

  • I’m thankful to Scot for re-posting my article here, and for all of the great discussion here in the comments.

    I responded to some of your thoughts in my latest post – here: http://knightopia.com/blog/2011/12/29/the-language-of-participatory-church-curation/

    And for more of my ongoing reflections on participatory church, please check out: http://knightopia.com/blog/tag/participatory/


  • Chip

    And yet . . .

    Participation has been a major focus for the American evangelical church since the Jesus Movement. The greater emphasis on the laity that came out of the charismatic renewal; church sanctuary trends of circular seating arrangements, meant to foster a sense of community and deemphasize the clergy; formerly clerical work now given to the laity (e.g., pastoral care, which now is largely seen to be the job of the laity rather than the employed clergy); the rise and growth of small groups; the recovery of the Eucharist that hit the mainline through the charismatic renewal; the rise and growth of lay-led retreats — all of these, and many more features, have made for much more participatory churches.

    Maybe all of this proves far more true for those in the mainline than, say, non-denominational churches. But having sojourned in several church worlds (from non-denominational to mainline to ex-mainline), I’d say I’ve seen such trends in all camps — even if more in those churches with some mainline background.

  • I tried posting this earlier and it may not have gone through. But have been working on a emergent blogsite this past year reflecting on its character and appearance by integrating various emergent writers and websites to create an overall web journal of emergent christianity’s progress, history and themes. Perhaps this may be of help for further exploration upon this topic. You may start here or at any number of sidebar topics listed on the right side of the blog/journal – http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/12/emergent-christianity-relevancy22.html