Monday, March 23, 2009

The Emergent Church Is Nothing New - But They Are Doing New Things

The Introduction

Emergent Church folks and Mainline Church folks are often suspicious of each other. But they also seem curious about one another. It is my hope that the healthy curiosity can help overcome the unhealthy suspicion. This post is an attempt to embody that goal. In that vein, I want to offer a critique of and compliment to the Emergent Church so they can better understand how Mainline Christians sometimes view them. Basically, I want air some dirty laundry, so some of the stink can be aired out. Hopefully the cleaner air will promote better neighborliness. So, here goes!

The Critique

I like many things about the Emergent Church, but I do need to challenge the idea that they are doing something "new." The Emergent Church is actually a movement that seems to be an amalgamation of old-yet-untried ideas and theologies that perceives itself as doing things that are "new." Many of the "emerging" thoughts have already been talked about or put in place for years - and sometimes centuries - in the Mainline and Evangelical Church. For example, dialogical preaching has been around for a long time, yet Doug Pagitt wrote a book about it as if he was inventing it for the first time. Dialogical preaching has been practiced in the Black Church for hundreds of years - and it has been practiced (even the way Pagitt does it) for a long time in places like St. Gregory Episcopal Church. This makes it seem like some the leaders of the Emergent Church are good users/plagiarizers of good ideas. They take an old idea like dialogical preaching, pretend they are discovering it for the first time, and then re-publish it with a glitzy-looking book. It makes them money, but it's not necessarily "new." Maybe that is too harsh. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. Since many of these folks are young, perhaps they simply don't know they are using old ideas. In any case, it seems like Ecclesiastes 1:9 is right: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

The Compliment

The gift of the Emergent Church for the rest of us is that they "walk the walk." While they might not be developing all new ways of doing ministry, they are actively employing non-traditional ways of doing ministry in their churches. So, for example, people like Pagitt actually practice dialogical preaching while many others simply talk about it. They are teaching the rest of us that non-traditional ministry is possible - and happening. Emergent Church pastors actually practice things such as interactive worship, jazz liturgies, collaborative leadership, etc. And they don't just do these things on special occasions. They make non-traditional ministry the new tradition. They model good ideas by daring to do them. All those good ideas by people like Ruth Duck, Lucy Rose, Elisabeth Fiorenza, and the Holden Village community that have been locked away in the closet of the Mainline Church are used in public places in the Emergent Church. The Emergent Church can do what many others cannot because they are starting new churches. They are starting new traditions. That is their gift to the wider Church. We have much to learn from their emerging practices.

The Hope

If we combined the rich theological tradition and depth of the Mainline Church, with the youthful passion and practicality of the Emergent Church, we'd have something truly relevant for a postmodern world. That is why conversations between Mainliners and Emergents are so important for the Church. These conversations can be awkward at times but they are also mutually enriching. So, despite the difficulty, I say let the conversations continue! Hopefully these conversations can be deeply generative for the wider Church of Jesus Christ.

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