First, is it even really a movement? If so, it’s a very amorphous one!
Second, I strongly recommend that people wanting to discuss the ECM (or conversation or network or whatever you want to call the phenomenon) read this: Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger (Baker, 2005). It’s the best book I know of on the ECM; it’s written on the basis of exhaustive research including extended interviews with leading emergent/emerging church leaders.
Today I will be on Doug Pagitt’s radio program out of Minneapolis. I’m not sure what we will talk about, but I’m glad to be interviewed–especially if I can sneak in a word or two about my forthcoming book Against Calvinism! 🙂 Of course, most of you know Pagitt is a leader looked up to by many in the ECM. I have been privileged to get to know him over the past several years. We don’t see eye-to-eye on some things, but I appreciate his search for authenticity in contemporary Christianity and church life.
As Gibbs and Bolger make abundantly clear, the ECM is not monolithic; it is a movement made up of very different congregations with a few exemplary things in common. I would say one of those is a determination to be authentic with Christianity and church life and to discard all that is merely traditional (“traditionalism”) and institutional (focus on survival for its own sake).
Gibbs and Bolger offer several brief, “nutshell” definition-descriptions of emerging churches. Here is one: “emerging churches are missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time.” (p. 28) Remember that no single definition-description is going to fit all emerging churches equally or in the same way. And there are certainly non-ECM congregations that would fit that description.
The first congregation I remember reading about that was described as “emerging” or “emergent” was Minneapolis’ Spirit Garage. (Google it!) Spirit Garage began in the mid-1990s as a mission to Uptown by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. There’s proof that SOME emerging churches are definitely rooted in the so-called “mainline” of American religion. (However, I think there’s something anomalous about anyone involved in the ECM calling anything “mainline” because if being postmodern means anything it means rejecting the very idea of “mainline” anything. “Mainline” is never a merely descriptive label; it always carries the connotation that what is so described is normative.)
Another early emergent church I encountered was House of Mercy which began at First Baptist Church of St. Paul (where I was a member for some years)–an American Baptist congregation. House of Mercy eventually left that church and denomination and has since associated itself more (if anything) with the Presbyterian tradition community. Like Spirit Garage, House of Mercy began in the mid-1990s and gained a lot of attention because of its willingness to experiment and embrace non-traditional forms of Christian life and worship. It attracted many young (and not so young) Christians interested in the arts.
Then, of course, emergent churches exploded across the American and British landscape. (I’m not implying that those two emerging churches were somehow the “originals” of which everything else is copy; I’m just saying I first became aware of the ECM through them.)
Many of my students have gone on to pastor or co-pastor or somehow lead emerging churches around the country. I have spoken in a number of those and at retreats and gatherings of emerging church leaders and church planters.
One things is painfully obvious to anyone who knows much about the ECM: It is very difficult to generalize about these congregations. As soon as you say anything about the movement as a whole you’ll encounter someone or something that doesn’t fit the description. However, as Gibbs and Bolger helpfully point out, certain common features or family resemblances TEND to be true of MOST of these congregations and ministries.
Again, I strongly recommend that people interested in understanding what these common features and family resemblances are read Emerging Churches by Gibbs and Bolger. (Yes, I know there are other books on this phenomenon, but I have found this one most helpful for now.)
One of the failures of traditional forms of Christianity is being closed to criticism and calls for change. Conservative evangelicalism tends to be convinced it is already wholly right (or was at some point in the past). It at least appears impervious to even internal constructive criticism of its traditions. So-called mainline, progressive, liberal Christianity tends also to be convinced it is or has been wholly right–at least about its basic methods and approaches that have to do with adapting to modernity.
If the ECM offers anything new it has to be AT LEAST forging a third alternative (not necessarily a “via media”) to these “right” and “left” wings of contemporary Christianity.
Some emerging churches and leaders work out of a generally evangelical background. Some work out of a generally so-called “mainline” background. Hopefully, however, none of them will succumb to the temptation to align themselves too closely with the established hierarchies and traditions of these movements. Hopefully they will keep a critical “distance,” as it were, and refuse even financial support from anyone who requires them to toe a party line. Hopefully they will resist the subtle temptation even unconsciously to adopt the habits of either the “left” or the “right” of contemporary church life and thought.
I am of the opinion that SOME emerging churches and their leaders HAVE ALREADY succumbed to the temptation to develop a veneer of being different (avant garde, radical, etc.) while adopting the ways of conservative evangelicalism beneath the surface. SOME others have succumbed to the same temptation with regard to so-called mainline, progressive, liberal Protestantism. What I mean is, these emerging congregations (I’m not going to name them here–if the shoe fits, wear it or put it on someone you know!) LOOK very non-conformist but are actually very conformist in their beliefs and practices beneath the surface. In other words, just wearing a certain kind of glasses and using PowerPoint during sermons and mouthing naughty words occasionally DOES NOT make you emergent! Neither does adopting Celtic spirituality (whatever that is, exactly!) or worshiping in a dark space with scores of candles and a dozen TV monitors. Being truly emergent MUST mean something more than these surface features put on top of either conservative or progressive foundations. These CAN be present, of course, but what makes a congregation or mission or organization truly “emergent” MUST be below the surface at the deep level of commitment.
I would argue that one such commitment MUST be self-criticism and willingness frequently to change combined with rejection of hierarchical models of leadership or absolutizing of tradition or being new and different for their own sakes. Another commitment MUST be rejection of modernity as the foundation or norm for belief and life and mission and service. Both conservatives and progressives have (often unwittingly and even against their own intentions) adopted modernity as the cultural norm even for Christianity and church life. What will that mean? It must mean an openness to new things the Spirit of God wants to do among his people that do not fit the modern box. It must mean a refusal of control, manipulation and orderliness. It must mean a refusal to reduce Christianity to either doctrine or ethics and a determination to discover it as transformative spirituality that is not privatized or individualized. It must mean attempts to discover the meaning of true community without confining structures, rules and protocols that put these before persons and relationships.