“Emerging” is the hottest buzzword for the self-referencing Church since “the silent majority.”
Many leaders, sick and tired of being a part of a Christianity boxed-in by legalism, bigotry and corrupting cooptation with unseemly elements of “the system” (politics, market economics, media), looked to a different/better future.
“The emerging church,” we are told, is the new wave: a fresh start and bold step forward for the Bride of Christ. It is young, exciting, brave—free of the burdens and bigotry of past failures. It is progressive and creative—a re-envisioning of faith for the postmodern age.
And here’s the mystique and thrill of it all: It is emerging. Slowly, steadily, under-the-radar and gaining momentum as it goes … But from where and to what? For some, it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a change, and that is always good, right? The romance of newness and progressive thinking has people cheering and heralding the “parade” of emergence. It’s not so much what is on the parade floats or why there even is a parade; it is that there is a marching mob, boisterous and charismatic, stepping out in a new direction.
The “emerging church” sounds amazing, doesn’t it? A generation is rising up and re-invigorating the Church for a new era, leading us out of cultural irrelevance and political obstinacy and into a golden age of satellite-projected discipleship where all threads of Christianity are woven together into a patchwork quilt of pomo-correctness. Sure, the hype is easy to get excited about. But as is so often true about things that are fresh, novel or cutting edge, the question of yes, but why? often gets sidestepped in the celebration of its radical possibility. It’s like when you rush off in a flurry to the store and then, once there, cannot remember what it was you needed. Journeys are fun but only enriching if you can recall the rhyme and reason for leaving.
Don’t get me wrong here. I have nothing against the passionate, dedicated thinking that has often characterized the leading pastors, writers and theologians on the matter of an emerging church. I share their concern for the vitality of Christendom and its path in our culture. But in hearing much of the hype, I just can’t seem to satiate my lingering why questions. Why is the 21st century seen as so pivotal a time in history that a change in Christian religion is necessary or eminent?
The Church needs to be careful not to get caught up in change just for change’s sake. As Neil Postman so often noted in his writings on culture, the charms of technology, futurism and liberality are often embraced with grievous disregard for history’s time-tested wisdom (“The idea that if something could be done, it should be done”).
Before we push on and proclaim an emerging new church, perhaps we ought to first think hard and fast about where we’ve come from and why we need to leave it behind.
We have 2000 years of endurance and tradition behind us, led by thinkers, theologians, writers and leaders whose legacy should not be dashed at the altar of anachronistic now-ness. And above all we have the Bible: God’s word, Jesus’ life, the testament to our origins and identity in Christ. The Bible is not passé, and neither are Luther, Calvin, Athanasius, Augustine, Edwards or any other of our forefathers in the faith. We cannot downplay these historical moments and must understand them both on their own terms and within the broader story. It is a dangerous trend in the some “emerging” circles that the historical institutions of Christianity are being reduced to an ala-carte buffet of “pick what you want and create your own meal” disingenuous orthodoxy.
Why are we so skittish of our Christian past? Sure, there are many dark moments (the Crusades, Inquisition, slavery, et al), but we must be wary not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We are Christians—followers of Christ—and should not ditch the name because it carries a bit of baggage.
The Church is always in transition, and always should be, so what is the problem with “emerging” yet again? The problem is that change in the recent history of the Church (and the world, for that matter) is dangerously accelerated due to technological and media advances. And the problem with fast change is that there is far too little time for questions. Why are we changing? What are the reasons? Ramifications? Change in the age of mass media becomes like a pendulum swing or a snowball. The momentum that launched the movement is heightened and exponentially expanded by the forces of the market (which loves coinable terms and mass movements like “emerging”) and a culture that has been weaned on ubiquitous progress and technological advancement. We grew up knowing only change—and that change was a good thing. And the legacy of that is our love affair with change for change’s sake.
There are many things we can talk about regarding the “emerging church,” which is good because the movement itself is all about conversation. Talking about what the emerging church is or could be is the emerging church: An ongoing ontological conversation. But that is both a good and bad thing, because putting “conversation/dialogue” on too high a pedestal can be problematic. The emerging church has reacted against its former self, which unfortunately didn’t allow for all that much open dialogue or meta-critique. But the reaction—at least to me—has gone too far, frequently embracing postmodern uncertainty and conversational ambiguity to the point of absurdity.
It is this sort of reactionary pendulum swing from hard-line to no-line that defines and threatens the emerging church. It can become an effort to un-church the Church, de-Christianize Christianity and break the bonds of the Bible-thumping image. Controversy is routinely avoided at all cost, and identity often comes more from what "emerging" isn’t than what it is. And if there is anything we should have learned from the 20th century, it is that defining a faith in terms of what it isn’t (gay, humanist, communist, postmodern, pro-choice, Democrat, etc.) does little to further the kingdom. The Church, before it can really emerge into a new significance, must continually check itself: Where have we come from, where are we going, how will be get there, and most importantly—why? If we don’t understand this, we are in serious trouble.