Some thoughts on Emergent Church…

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I’m planning to come back to some more thoughts on preaching, but since my brain tends to bump and jive between multiple threads (not necessarily a good thing), I’m going to share some thoughts on the whole “emergent” church stuff first, or “emerging,” or “emergence,” whatever.

Honestly, too, I’ve lately not only had some questions put to me about it, but I’ve also read a few things that I only marginally thought had merit. Also, I’m surrounded by a church family, many of whom are new to the vocabulary of emergent and find themselves where most of us find ourselves, when painfully honest… that’s an exercise of defining emergent for myself, because we each have had a varied introduction to, experience of, and history with emergent church friendship/conversation/aspiration.

Here’s a couple of things you should know about me, in case you’ve never heard me say them out loud: 1) I self-identify as a pastor of an emergent church, 2) most of the folks in my church family are versed or becoming versed with things “emergent,” and 3) I in no way consider “emergent” to be a denomination, affiliation or even much of a genuine modifier past my own set of thoughts and definitions.

I was at a little conference hosted by our Disciples of Christ sisters and brothers in DC back in 2007 and heard Tony Jones try to share a metaphor with folks about why emergent is not a denomination, or even a reformation movement, but simply a survival move that has resonated with a lot of people. He said that he and his friends who kick started what we now call “emergent church” simply jumped ship from their Christian traditions into spiritual life-rafts in an effort to save their own faith. But amazingly, as they paddled away in their life-rafts they heard the splashing and calls of all the folks jumping ship after them and hoping to also salvage their own faiths.

That resonates with me. I was at a place where my own faith had become sullen, caged and dry. Because my church tradition was wrong? No. Because my church tradition was stupid or bad? Nope. My faith was in jeopardy because my church tradition simply didn’t have the built in receptors for a person like me. (I mean “receptors” like when certain proteins or viruses are made to connect and join together.) There were no places of safety for me to ask my questions. There was no value placed on diversity of thought or expression. So, as an individual human and as a follower of Christ, as I began trying to unpack certain parts of my life and faith, I found mostly only confusion and hostility.

Was it because I’m a “post-modern?” I suppose partly. Was it because I’m a “rebel?” At one point, yes. Today? Not so much. Could I have stayed in my tradition and made a place for folks on a spiritual journey like mine? I could not have stayed. Some of my friends who are kindred spirits have stayed, and I respect that. For me, survival meant moving on.

So, back in about 2003 I read a little book by Eddie Gibbs called ChurchNext about why we needed missionaries in America again, folks who are tooled to re-deliver the gospel in new terms and models. As a trained cross-cultural missionary, this woke me up and put words to many of the thoughts and questions with which I had previously wrestled. It also laid the ground work for me to pick up my first Brian McLaren book, More Ready Than You Realize. Brian started filling in some the terms and frameworks that I needed to find my new way of faithing. That help ultimately culminated in his Generous Orthodoxy.

More authors followed: Darrell Guder, Doug Pagitt, GK Chesterton, Richard Pascale and more. Ultimately, I found ways to express my yearnings and fill in some of the blanks… and that is the foundation for our church family in Bethesda right now… and so we are arriving at a few of my thoughts on what emergent church means to me…

Emergent gives faith a fighting chance against certainty.

That’s right, I don’t think faith is simply holding a certain set of theological definitions or affirming certain doctrinal statements. Faith is something other than certainty. I can’t believe that with all the scriptural witness to what faith is, we have so often made it an answer instead of a question. Faith is hope. Faith is yearning. Faith is trust. Faith is appetite. Faith needs to move and live and breathe. We try to make faith into the acceptance of a method and form like the four spiritual laws (easily distilled to a tract, pamphlet or sermon). We try to make the scriptures answer all our questions so that we can construct a base of certainty. We try to make a hermeneutic that can help us navigate and subdue the Holy Scriptures of our “faith” and leave no questions in doubt. Can we have faith without doubt? Really? With certainty in place, we’ve no need of faith.

Well, I found my certainty system to be severely lacking. I’ve probably investigated and found yours to be lacking, too. What I love to read about these days is your faith. I want to know how you hear God and touch the divine. Without the certainty crutch you can become frighteningly mystical, and that is necessarily a good thing. I want to hear your doubts, and how you grapple with a God who is wrapped in the deepest mystery and yet also is claimed to have walked in human flesh. That’s a God worth my time. That’s a God who defies my pamphlets and snorts when I talk about my awesome theologies. That’s a God who calls all people, for that’s a God able to wrap around all kinds of people, I hope, I trust, I faith.

Emergent gives diversity a fighting chance against conformity.

So, did I run into trouble in church because I’m a “postmodern?” Yes, I have to admit that I did. My value system just can’t support a communal structure that enforces conformity. I also can’t abide in myself an inauthentic acquiescence that screams hypocrisy from the depths of my soul. Sweet grief, I can’t even abide the idea that you’d agree with everything I’m writing and be thinking just like me! What kind of screwed up world would we have if we all thought alike? Diversity is the core of imagination. Diversity is the foundation of innovation. Diversity is flavor and color. Diversity is needed for mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual health. When a faith system or church tradition loses diversity or moves to quell diversity, it becomes inert, that is without internal and vital motion. The same is true, I believe, for a single human soul.

Members of our church family in Bethesda claim many church traditions and often still self-identify with those traditions. And that’s awesome! We’re not post-denominational, we’re pan-denominational, or I usually say “multi-denominational.” So, my messages on Sunday mornings often have more to do with what someone might go make of my sermon ideas than what they’re supposed to agree with me about. Ergo… sermonizing as “Here’s an idea/image in scripture that I think we need to fashion a response to; Now what might that response be in your life, or our life as a worshipping community?” Diversity is fertile soil for growth.

Emergent gives a relational, gracious community a fighting chance against earned acceptance.

Let’s face the facts. If I am to be me, I’m not really welcome in very many congregations. One of the hardest things for me in my earlier years of ministry was the recurring fights and arguments with church leadership. Often, I would have taken so much time to tailor my words and finesse my communication to be non-threatening, but still end up with horrible things being said to me. I would think I had come up with the most innocuous way to say something, and then BOOM, I’d blow someone’s world apart and off we’d go down the rabbit’s hole. It took a few years, but I finally figured out that it was me, ME, who I was and how I thought was the problem. And I couldn’t just stop being me. I have tried that, by the way, and seen others choose that path, and it leads to spiritual death.

We have to relearn how to practice a very authentic and whole-hearted welcome. We have to relearn how to love each other whether we agree on some things or not. People, including ourselves, must be able to walk into the life of a faith community with a full, intact and immediate worth and dignity. If we withhold that on any basis of merit, we have sinned, and sinned mightily.

We’ve spent to much time deciding and communicating who wasn’t welcome. We’ve spent too much time “protecting” the church to let it be porous enough to admit some of the most needful folks in our society and some of the folks we’ve most needed among us. In our rush to certainty we’ve forgotten to trust God. In our unreasonable fear of God and of messing up that solid base of certainty, we’ve not allowed ourselves to love as God loves or risk ourselves as God so amazingly risked personhood in the life and death of Jesus who was the Christ. Walled-in communities and souls risk a death of stale inertness.

I never thought I would say this and really mean it, but I would so attend worship with my church family, even if I weren’t their pastor! I love those folks! Man, some of them are screwed up, almost as bad as I am! Some hold political opinions or theological ideas that scare me, really. Some can’t sing on key and some truly share nothing in common with me. I love them all! They love each other. It sounds stupid and fake, but we have to love each other. You don’t come to us to have your belief/certainty system validated! Truth is, it’s our love for one another and for God that allows transformation among us. It’s the tension of our diversity that fires the kinetic joy, peace and imagination among us. We practice an authentic welcome because we each depend on it and need it so much.

Wow. This is a long post. And it only has three thoughts in it so far. But I have to lay just one more out here, before I chicken out totally…

Emergent gives dynamic, “becoming” faith a chance against a completed, static system.

I was once asked if I didn’t think the scriptures provided a complete “Christian Worldview.” My answer then, as it is now, was no. What I felt I was really being asked was if I couldn’t see that the Bible gives us a single answer to every moral and ethical, methodological and theological question which confronts humanity in each epoch, place, generation and situation. My answer reflected my belief that we are not ultimately called to parrot doctrinal and moralized statements generation after generation, but called to be thinking, processing, growing agents of eternal life. If calling faith “appetite” didn’t make you grimace then the implications for church of that last little ditty should have. My humble opinion is that our loss of becoming, our loss of identity as contemporary agents of eternal life, is why so many church buildings stand empty today and why so many congregations devour books on how to keep a dying congregation alive. We’ve traded off an amazing invitation to become something for the consolation prize of belonging to something.

If we aren’t allowed to “become” church just like the lucky folks living in 70A.D. or 325A.D. or 1500A.D., then we become the simplest minded, however clever, copy-cats the cosmos has ever created, and most of the unbelieving world’s criticisms of us become well-earned. For some of you, I just stopped being a “Bible Believing Christian” because I thoroughly undermined the authority of scripture. All I can say is this: I love, cherish and cling to our scriptures. They guide me, admonish me and uphold me. I love our scriptures and the community of souls whose story they share and invite us to be a part of… but I don’t worship the scriptures or follow them in place of a living God. Fact is, it’s in the scriptures that I see the call to become.

Now, if we are allowed to become, then it’s an imperative that we hold to faith and love, without which we fracture in our diversity and lose touch with one another in a hurry. BEWARE: What I become may not be what you need to become! The scariest things for me to hear is someone saying, “We’re the only true emergent blah, blah…” or something like that. Go catch the wind and put it in your pocket, my friend. “Emergent” is not what we are becoming. “Emergent” is not just a new way of conforming and belonging. What I am becoming, what you are becoming, that’s all God’s business. And the day that “emergent” stops facilitating that becoming, I’m moving on, I promise.

Emergent stuff is a dangerous game we play, as dangerous and threatening as any relationship we’ve ever pursued with another person, but the rewards! The joy of the kind of community and running with God that this emergent conversation, friendship, and aspiration has afforded me! It’s been well worth every momoment.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Emergent Church…

    Callid Keefe-Perry said:
    December 29, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Great stuff here Todd. I’ll be linking to it from the Rochester (NY) Emergent Cohort page. Thanks for throwing down these words, I am glad for your thoughts and articulation. In the event you are looking for some (amateur) theology that seems to resonate with your thought here, I have a paper and a blog post that you might be interested in here:

    All good things,


    ~ Thanks, Callid… I’ll poke around and check out the cohort and your paper! Peace!

    Mike Stavlund said:
    January 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    A great post, Todd. Thanks.

    The Image of Fish » The Emerge-ish Church said:
    March 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    […] Perspectives   A Great (Quick Blog Post)    Another Great (Even Quicker) Post   Christianity Today Article (2007)     […]

    David Emme said:
    May 22, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Having not read everything on this page, the ideal of faith as the way shrink rapped and digested as often becomes very easy for that kind of accusation. Thing is this is what people like me are tagged with. When fundamentalism comes on the scene-we are judged irrational for not having specific arguments(rational arguments) that make sense to others.

    What was said a hundred years ago are being rep-eated today-we cannot believe in a God who made this world in six days-and fundamentalism is the rational one, right?

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