Lonnie Frisbee and the Non-Demise of the Emerging Church

Lonnie Frisbee and the Non-Demise of the Emerging Church December 30, 2009

Well, it seems that my long-time friend and occasional sparring partner, Andrew Jones (TSK), has (once again) said we’ve reached the end of the emergent/-ing church movement.  TSK’s ambivalence for the “emergent/-ing” language and the partnership that some of us in the States have with publishing houses is well known.  And I think it’s always dangerous to start to declare something over as an historian when one is still up to one’s ankles in it.

To be fair, TSK clarifies in a comment on the post when he writes that in 2009 the ECM became,

less radical and non-offensive but actually larger in scope and impact than it has ever been.

Let’s take those in reverse order.

I used to think I knew what the term “radical” meant, but then I entered a doctoral program in theology.  How that term is used in the academy versus how it’s used in the streets and in the church is virtually unrelated, as far as I can tell.  What I now mean by “radical” is informed by Marxism (another word that’s dirty outside the academy, but everyone in the academy seems to know what you mean when you use it).

Karl Marx (he looks as nice as a grandpa)

In short, what Marx did was to see what others did not see,

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. (from The Communist Manifesto)

The capitalist system, he’s saying, is predicated on constant changes in production, which both wipes away all former fixedness of human existence and precludes the ability of the bourgeoisie or the masses to reflect on their existence because they are always too busy trying to keep up with said changes.  What is “radical” about Marx and Marxists is their ability to see and proclaim this, and to potentially catalyze a revolution that will overturn this way of being.  Of course, it’s somewhat ironic that now, 150 years after Marx, his ideas live on the academy but are virtually unknown in politics.

That being said, is the ECM still “radical”?  Has it ever been?  It seems to me that, yes, there is some radicality left in the ECM, for it seems to me that emergents are and have been among those proclaiming that the “emperor has no clothes” — here the “emperor” being the conventional church.  And, contrary to Aaron Stewart, who commented at TSK,

The Emergent conversation is coming to an end because people eventually get tired of just talking,

the fact is that those of us in the ECM have spent a lot more time doing than talking.  To push that even further, why that dichotomy?  When TSK travels Europe and talks to folks about starting new, off-the-grid Christian communities, is he “just talking”?  Am I, when I write a book or a blog post or give a talk somewhere?  Of course not.  Talking is actually doing, so let’s all stop using this tired trope, okay?

And secondly, is the ECM becoming “less offensive”?  Let me shake my Magic Eight Ball.  Mine reads, “Outlook not so good.” If my personal and anecdotal experience is any guide, the ECM is more offensive than ever.  In the States, the Evangelical Intelligentsia has determined that emergent leaders are not true evangelicals, leaving pastors like Dan Kimball and Bob Hyatt to choose between evangelicalism the ECM.  Personally, I have been disinvited from three speaking engagements this year, and one that I’ve got coming up in 2010 was moved off of a college campus and into a nearby hotel because of my presence at the event.

TSK notes that the conventional church in the UK and Europe has been more accepting of emergence in their midst, even supporting leading ECM thinkers like himself and Jonny Baker and underwriting  Agreed.  From Rowan Williams on down, it seems that European church leaders are generally more comfortable with theological and ecclesiological innovation than their American brethren (although the protesters that have greeted Brian McLaren in Scotland and France and Germany show that European acceptance is not universal).

Interest in the ECM is peaking among mainline leaders in the States, if my speaking schedule is any indication.  I, for one, hope that this does not mean a lack of controversy — in fact, in one speaking engagement to which I just agreed, I’ll be speaking alongside Will Willimon, and we’ll be taking contrary positions on the benefit of denominati0ns.  That might lead to some controversy.


Lonne Frisbee

Last night I watched the documentary, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.  Although the productions leaves something to be desired, the content of the film is both fascinating and harrowing.  In brief, Lonnie Frisbee was a gay, drugged out hippie who converted to Christianity during an acid trip.  As it turned out, he had a knack for preaching and healing, and he was pivotal in the genesis of both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Associations, and he was like a son to Chuck Smith, Sr. and then to John Wimber.  But as his sexuality became more public, they both turned on him.  When he died of AIDS in 1993, he had been ostracized by the churches that he helped found, and he was surrounded only by his longtime friends from the Jesus Movement.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Max Weber‘s definition that charisma is,

a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

That’s Lonnie Frisbee in a nutshell.

More damning, however, is Weber’s conclusion that religious charisma is always routinized and bureaucratized as the generation that follows the charismatic leader attempts to capture the charisma and make a living from it.

And that is Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard.

If anything — and I think that TSK may agree with me on this — the question that looms over the ECM is whether it will become domesticated as the first generation of leadership passes the mantle to the second.  But, the truth is, the answer to that lies not with me or TSK, but with you.  Yes, you.

[UPDATE: It seems that TSK took my post to be more in-your-face than I meant it.  I really used a couple disagreements he and I have and used them as a jumping off point to reflect on movements in general, and the ECM and Calvary Chapel and Vineyard specifically.  My apologies to Andrew if this post seemed overly antagonistic.]

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