"The Emergent Church." Post-modernism in the pews. It's been happening (or at least, I've just been noticing it) over the last several years, though only in the last few months have I really started taking a hard look at it, trying to understand it.
I'm not doing too well.
This idea of emergence has become chic among younger Christians. They gobble up books by McClaren and Miller, they subscribe to Relevant and Sojourners, and, boy, do they love their Derek Webb. (Don't presume by my use of the word "chic" that I'm down on any of these. Just keep reading.)
Lately, I've been trying to look at what's fueling this reformation of thought among these (post-)Gen-X Christians. Where is this coming from? What's it based on? Where will it lead?
I'm still looking. But I'm encountering some problems. More on this later. First, a primer of sorts.
(Disclaimer: I don't hold the answers. I don't claim omniscience, though I may act like it sometimes. Anything written here is written with the understanding that I may well be wrong or misguided; and the expectation that if I am, you gentle readers will surely tell me so. The logic or structure may not always be perfect, either. I'm free-writing here, almost. The bulk of this piece deals with my understandings, perspectives, and reactions. I don't claim any of this to be generalization on the whole. So, please don't take offense (try not to, anyway). Thanks. Continue.)
Defining A Movement: A Tricky Proposition
The first step to understanding this movement in the church is to look at the terms used. Break it down. Language is everything, after all.
Postmodern: This term provides some difficulty. In the mainstream sense, postmodernism is a belief set, the essence of which is that there is no empirical Truth outside oneself. This is the diametric opposite of Fundamentalism, which is grounded on the idea that Truth is independent of human thought or practice. Postmodernism emphasizes perspective over objective concepts, experience over knowledge. Truth is what's real to you. This philosophical concept has produced a generation of "seekers," people looking for answers, for something to anchor them spiritually, mentally, and psychologically. This is without question an incredible opportunity for the cause of Christ to break through some ideological barriers and give hope and peace to lost and confused people.
But where does this leave Christianity? Certainly Christians can't subscribe to a worldview devoid of objective Truth, can they? In a word, no. So some Christians put their own spin on the word or, in some cases, created a new one without all the baggage: emergent.
Emergent: What does emergent mean? Frankly, I'm not sure. I've looked it up in several places, and I've gotten several different answers. What seem to be the common elements? Seeker-oriented. New. Non-traditional. Community-based. Forgoing the "bible-thumping" of other forms of church for something more media-savvy, pursuing authenticity.
Authentic seems to be a really important word among proponents of the "emergent" movement.
There are some other key terms I may discuss later, but these will do for now.
It Almost Sounds Too Good to Be True
I mean, who wouldn't like to be a part of this? A growing community who cares about each other and welcomes outsiders. A group of people who want to engage their culture and have dialogue about the Big Questions. Sincerity. Honesty.
Over the years, I've complained a lot about problems I've seen in the church. I even stopped going to church for a while in college. My beef was with the hypocrisy, especially among people my age. The same kids partying on the weekends would go to church (or BCM) and play their penitence, only to do the same things the next weekend. Church was a game. It was mechanical, a habit or tradition, almost a necessary evil.
The church I was going to at the time didn't feed me. I wasn't growing. I wasn't connected. I was tired of the peaches-and-cream Christians, who acted like they were happy all the time and their lives were perfect. I was tired of feeling like I had to put on my "joyful face" to interact with other believers, even though I was miserable or going through a hard time. I hated the hypocrisy, but I played along with it too. I thought I had no other choice.
I've had other beefs with church practice in the past. The music issue. How crappy and unprofessional the drama ministry was. They were cheap shots, yes. But they were how I felt. I couldn't take church seriously.
"Phony, phony, all is phony!" saith the Caulfield.
So the more I heard about this new kind of church community, I was intrigued. Could there be a way to get past all the artifice and find something real? People who really care? A Christianity that wasn't simply about doing or saying the right things? I hoped so.
This PoMo Thing, It's a Smash Hit
All over the World, all over the Web, I'm seeing more and more younger people get onboard with this movement. And God has used it to bring hundreds, even thousands and tens of thousands to Himself. And He will continue to do so, because at the heart of this movement is a pursuit of Him, of worshipping Him "in spirit and in truth." There are websites, books, magazines. There are bloggers all over that promote this mini-reformation. A few of you are reading this (skeptically, at least) right now. This movement is growing.
I've been to one of these communities before. There is an emergent church here in Houston that I visited for a concert/art show on a Friday night. And I have to tell you, I've never felt more welcome. More people came up and talked to me that single night, than people had at church for the previous six months or more. I was impressed.
I can see the appeal. It's a beautiful thing to find acceptance and friendship, and it's sadly rare to find it in American churches. The emergent movement seeks to tear down the walls that separate the faithful from the searching, so that all may find family. I'm definitely down with this.
(I would like to talk about more cool elements of this movement, but time is short. On to the next point.)
And Then The Unthinkable Happened...
But as I've looked at this movement, I'm troubled by a few things.
First off, I'm troubled that PoMo/Em Christians sometimes take a "for us or against us" stand against other believers. Allow me to explain. No, there is too much. Let me link up. I'm having trouble meshing the emergent ideal of acceptance and community with things like this. (Note: I understand that no one person speaks for the whole. But I'm using this as an example of something I'm seeing more and more often.) In this article, John O'Keefe (who appears to be the driving force behind this PoMo/Em website) gives his new 95 pomo theses. I like his style--very upfront, fearless, and blunt. But it's hard for me to shore up #6, 11, 13, and 19 (which call for openness and "networking") with items like #23, 28, 46, 47, 48, 50, and so on, which seem to reinforce the "us" vs. "you" mentality. Indeed, as the list progresses, O'Keefe becomes more condemnational and insulting to the "modern" church. Though not all PoMo/Em Christians and "communities of faith" are this aggressive, this attitude is closer to the rule than to the exception.
Second, I'm troubled by what seems to be a spirit of intellectual snobbery and spiritual arrogance among PoMo/Ems. (Take a moment to stifle your knee-jerk shock and taking of offense; hear me out.) One hallmark of some PMEs that I've come in contact with is a condescension for traditional American Christians (make sure to include that "American" in there, since it's this country with the biggest problem, right?). The comments, the off-hand remarks. If you are a Christian and a *gasp* conservative, that means that you have bought the lie. That you haven't thought your beliefs through. That you blindly follow what the Fundies/Southern Baptists/parents tell you to do. Apparently, this is because no one in their right mind could possibly decide, after careful consideration and soul-searching, that any form of (" you modernist!") traditional belief structure or practice is acceptable.
This attitude offends me deeply. It's no better than the insulting Bible-beaters who patronize non-believers because they obviously don't understand how stupid non-belief is. PME's have exchanged the warcry of "Turn or Burn!" with "Be Emergent or be History!" I have a problem with this.
Third, I'm troubled that I've noticed an understated but clearly present political undertone with PME. "Oh, of course not," cry the adherents. "We're not about politics, man; we're about justice." Cool, then. Be about justice. But that's not what I'm seeing. That's not what I'm reading between the lines, Mr. Miller. I'm reading, "God's not a Republican. Or a Democrat. (But really, if He did choose a side, it surely wouldn't be Republican, heck no, because they're rich, selfish, capitalist pigs, man, and they don't care about anyone or anything other than themselves and their fatcat friends.)" You are so concerned about being authentic? Be authentic. Own it. Or don't. But don't try to snow me with this "non-political" thing. I'm not buying.
Fourth, I'm troubled by the chance that doctrine will get lost in the search for authentic experience. Look at question number two in this interview with Thomas Hohstadt. He says that he sees the emergent church as "personal and less doctrinal... validated by experience and less by knowledge..." This bothers me. It scares me. Because if you're not preaching the Gospel (a very concrete, knowable thing), what are you preaching? The Osteen doctrine of good vibes and positive thinking? Christianity is built upon truths. Truths about God. Man. Sin. Redemption. Justification. Sanctification. All those "churchy code words" that still mean a great deal to understanding who God is and what He did for us through Christ. If you bypass all that, if you talk about nothing but personal experience and interpretation, you may find some truth. But you will miss the uncomfortable parts, the tricky parts, the hard things like taking up your cross and dying to yourself. The things that are vital to following Jesus.
Like jazz, no resolution
I don't know. Maybe I'm "pomophobic," as O'Keefe would say. Maybe so. But I can't blithely throw off one flawed form of worship for another. I can't just embrace this new thing, and thumb my nose at the old. It's not fair, and it's not justified. From what I've seen, the PME movement is not much better than any other movement in the church. Sure, it improves some things, but it seems to lose others.
I'm still looking. I'm still digging. I don't want to walk lock-step behind traditional church, if they're not following Christ. But I refuse to trade in one pied piper for another.
And what I've seen, fair or unfair, typical or no, is just that. Christians who have decided to deride "the Church," bemoan its "westernization," ridicule its American elements, beat their chests for being middle-class or white or American. Derek Webb is repenting of his wife, his kids, his house? Of keeping his family safe? Why? Are these bad things? Should I shun them? Or is it yet another part of the "emergent" formula, the deconstruction and rejection of the old, whether good or bad, in favor of the new, the promised better, the yet-unrebuilt truth?
They/you may be right. I may be wrong. But I'm not convinced yet.