Emergent's Charism

Emergent's Charism April 30, 2010

Earlier this week I asked what you, dear reader, considered to be the charism of the emerging church movement.  Only a couple of you took the time to respond, so maybe the bulk of you don’t think that the ECM really has offered anything.  Regardless, I think that TransFORM: East, which launches today, is a great occasion to think a bit about what the ECM has offered, and has to offer.

First, the past.

Surely, the ECM didn’t come out of nowhere.  In some ways, we may have felt, and even communicated, that we were stumbling onto something that had never been experienced before in the history of the faith.  But of course, that wasn’t true.  I’ll use my recollections of the Emergent Convention in San Diego in 2003 by way of example — that was the first of three years that Emergent Village and Youth Specialties teamed up to convene a large event tangential to the National Pastors convention.

Jim Wallis addressed the 1,100 or so of us there about the biblical imperatives of fighting for social justice.  Truth be told, I’d never heard of Jim, and neither had many in the room.  But he’d been toiling away in justice ministry for three decades before he stood in front of us.  But he found a receptive audience for his message.

Tony Campolo, speaking primarily down the hall at the NPC, did not fare so well, however.  He was asked to come into the EC and give us a 5-minute challenge, and he did.  But the challenge was primarily his usual message to complacent evangelical college students, and it really missed the mark.  He didn’t know that we were already on his side — we had already been shaken out of our complacency.

In other words, we were among those who were bringing talk of social/biblical justice into the mainstream of the evangelical church.  And we were bringing other things to the fore that now seem like second nature.  Chris Seay was adamant that the church should once again patronize the arts, and he both spoke repeatedly about that and even turned his church in Houston into a living art space.  Holly Rankin Zaher and I argued that youth ministry as a segregated, ghettoized niche in the church needed to be blown up and reconceived.  Mark Scandrette stood on stage and made a holy fool of himself.  And lots of other very cool stuff happened.

In other words, we were a part of something that was burgeoning.  Long before Q and Catalyst, the ECM was pioneering new ways of gathering, of encouraging artists and songwriters to be creative and daring, and of rediscovering ancient spiritual disciplines.  We weren’t the only ones doing this, but we were in that mix.  And long before Jim Wallis published a bestseller, we were interested in being both faithfully and orthodoxly (?) Christian and fighting for justice in the world.

But that was then.  What now?

Many of those aforementioned elements are now part and parcel of American Protestantism, both evangelical and mainline.  It’s no longer much of a challenge to the church to argue for justice concerns or to welcome artists.  But what is challenging, and what I do see as a hopeful next chapter for the ECM (or whatever the hell it’s called for the next decade) is what’s happening at TransFORM: East.  The ECM has always primarily been about mission.  Brian McLaren, for instance, is really an evangelist — that’s his charism.  And all those early critiques of conventional church were really a challenge to a church that had lost its mission.  Indeed, even my more recent prophecies regarding the downfall of denominationalism are rooted in my belief that denominations mitigate rather than cultivate the missionality of local congregations.

It’s why all of us were reading Newbigin and Bosch ten years ago (and, admittedly, we should reread today).  It’s why we thought that we should get the theology right — the gospel right.

And now, at TranFORM, and elsewhere, there is a renewed and concerted effort to plant and cultivate churches — or, in the lingo of TransFORM, the “formation of missional communities.”

Personally, I’ll be thrilled if this is the next chapter of the movement.  I send my best wished to everyone gathering at TransFORM: East.  I’m with you in spirit, and I’ll be watching!


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  • While I’m guilty of not responding to the earlier post, I feel that Emergent has profound gifts to offer the church. In light of that, I was writing a belated comment here, and it turned into a post. It is here, though in essence I agree with your thoughts on mission, feeling that it may be the most significant thing we have to offer. Thanks for writing this.

  • Anthony Smith and I were processing the East Coast Gathering yesterday and we came to the same conclusion. The emerging churches charism is the ability to create liminal space of permission and acceptance as first human beings created in the image of God. There is no exception. The dominant conversation of the gathering was kingdom, and creating a space where the least of these is invited and loved. As Kathy Escobar said, it’s about downward progress.