Mixed emotions and the emerging church

tobyotter.jpg

I’m writing out a proposal because I’ve been asked to teach a course on the emerging church movement. I’m incredibly excited about the project. I get this way whenever I begin to think about art and liturgy and church in a new generation.

But there is something nagging me. In the back of my head, I’m wondering… who am I to be talking about the emerging church? I understand the deep shifts that are occurring in ecclesiology and culture. Yet, I wrote Tribal Church so that I could be an additional voice in the mix, not so I could join the choir. My work with young adults as a young adult has always been within a traditional, intergenerational context.

First, let me tell you what I love, love, love about the emerging church movement (ECM). I was in a meeting with Tim Keel, who said that they planted their church by gathering a group of artists together. Now, how cool is that? The visionary, innovative nature is all over the place in these gatherings. The engagement of art and technology is extremely exciting. We’re de/reconstructing the church, and something beautiful is coming out. I’m passionate about starting new churches, and the ECM has given us new vision to do just that.

I love the ECM because there’s now a place where my friends can serve. I’m pretty sure that I was born in a business suit. My memory’s a little fuzzy, but I bet that I came out of the womb wearing little infant high heels and a string of pearls. But the people I hang out with? Not so much. In seminary, my spikey-haired, pierced husband was frequently asked, “Now, how do you ever expect to find a job?” Well, he did what most pastors do in that situation: he let the holes grow in and the hair grow out. He looks quite respectable now. Yet, what if he didn’t have to change who he was to get a job? What if the church just accepted him? I imagine this won’t be such a problem any more…at least this is my hope.

I love the ECM because it gives ex-fundies (like me) a refuge. There’s an entire generation of people who grew up in conservative evangelical churches who were told that they had to be Republicans to go to heaven. We were told that caring for the earth didn’t matter, because Jesus was coming back any time now. We were told that the rich were rich because God blessed them and the poor were poor because they deserved it. We were told that women were to always graciously submit to men. We were told that same-gender relationships were an abomination. And none of this made sense in the actual world that we lived in and loved. But the emerging church has become a place for these people.

I love the ECM because I’m postmodern. I’m truly excited by the human messiness of postmodern theology and thought. And the emerging church is a cultural engagement in the midst of it.

And the number one reason why I love the ECM? Because we’re reaching back to the spiritual traditions of prayer, chant, and meditation. We’re refashioning them in a new time and place. The Holy Spirit is moving….

There are things I don’t like as well. When I’m asked to teach courses on the emerging church, I always want to respond, “Okay…But….”

I guess I’m mostly offended by some of the emerging church leaders’ caricatures of the mainline denominational church (MDC), especially the particular notion of the denominational church that everyone’s in it to keep an antiquated dinosaur propped up. I joined a MDC because it is the place where the theology made the most sense and because I, as a woman, can live out my calling.

I joined the MDC, not because of its power structure, but because it doesn’t allow power to run amuck. I appreciate its ability to keep the egos in check. I joined the mainline because it’s a place where there’s a weekly call to confession and a clear system of external accountability (I’ve just been involved with too many clergy pedophile cases…).

I don’t understand some of the emerging church leadership’s cynicism regarding mainline pensions. The claim that we’re all in it for the big fat payoff at retirement, to which I want to respond, “Okay. You’ve got me pegged. I freely admit it. I don’t want to eat dog food when I’m seventy. So does that really make me less of a hard-core follower of Jesus?” Don’t these guys see how the old people in their congregations live? Oh yeah…I guess not.

I don’t understand why more women aren’t in leadership positions. I’ve been told it’s because it’s a meritocracy and as soon as women start producing, then they can be in leadership. But I see women producing all the time. Beautifully. Just not usually in emerging church leadership. And I’m not stepping into a feminist time warp to become a part of a movement.

There’s my big but.

And here’s another but. It is a movement…a cultural overturning that goes far beyond what the guys who created this particular tag think.

So, what do you think?

the photo’s entitled “dog food kaleidoscope” by Tobyotter

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22 thoughts on “Mixed emotions and the emerging church

  1. I’m a seminarian that is 1.5 papers away from graduating and in my seminary career I’ve bumped up w/ the emerging church. I even tried to write a paper about it but I’m not sure I did with much success. I’m curious what your “booklist” for the class you are going to teach will be. Perhaps you could share it with us when you get it finalized?

    Thanks!

  2. You say you are postmodern but joined the mainline because it is the place where the theology made most sense. I would contend that Presbyterian/reformed theology is perhaps the most “modern” of all mainline traditions and the most difficult to adapt to a postmodern context. How do you reconcile the two?
    Have fun with the class, I’d love to be teaching more.

  3. Carol — it sounds like you should be one teaching a class on the emerging church then. Think of the conversations that will take place within that class and will emerge out into the church community. That is exciting!

    Is the emerging church movement just about alternative churches though? I believe that there are healthy emerging denominational churches as well. They are churches that are not static, they are not dead and they are not always looking back wistfully. They have roots and wings and embrace tradition and progress. It sounds like your church is one of them. My church is as well and I like to point out how healthy we are, which still includes our little issues and challenges.

    I think we have to help interpret the work, the attitude and the atmosphere of these healthy denominational churches in a positive way. When I read Diana Butler Bass’ book, From Nomads to Pilgrims, I read examples of healthy practicing denominational churches and I consider them healthy emerging churches. Who gets to define what an emerging church is anyway!

  4. Two thoughts.

    1) The PCUSA just awarded grants to two emerging congregations to help in the discernment and development of their ministries. One is THE OPEN DOOR in Pittsburgh. The other is the LIVING ROOM in Atlanta. I know the lead pastor at THE OPEN DOOR. Nice guy, very faithful. But I wonder, have we really done such a poor job of making people feel welcome in our congregations that we need names such as these? Granted, First Presbyterian does not invoke feelings of warmth and comfort, but I’m perplexed. I’m not making fun of the names, but wondering what we’re missing. And I wonder how hospitable some of these places might be if women our left out of leadership roles.

    2) I am troubled by the seeming dismissal of all that is denominational and the implication that those of us in congregational ministry are out of touch. I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is involved in a new church development, with an emerging bent to its practices. Here was the fascinating part: he’s having the same conversations I am. The people that are drawn to his ministry are troubled by, struggling with, and searching for the same answers as the people in my young adult small group. The difference? The people in my congregation are members of a traditional church, wear really nice suits, and drive really nice cars. In this country, you don’t have to be on the fringe of society to feel disconnected and lonely. Loneliness and isolation might be the only places where all are truly welcome.

  5. Ben, Good luck on getting the paper (and a half!) done. I love compiling book lists. I’ll post it when I’m done.

    Great question, Neil. I’m trying to think if I have enough time to answer it right now… okay… quickly.

    I actually see a lot of congruence between postmodern thought and Calvinism, although not my favorite part of Calvin… depravity of humanity. The optimism of modernism took a dire turn, and left us with the reality of depravity. I read it a lot in Derrida’s work, especially The Gift of Death, which is constantly deconstructing the notions of a gift, and asking if there is such a thing as a completely selfless gift. Isn’t there always some greed in our actions? Likewise, isn’t there always a degree of depravity?

    Although I’m not going to defend Presbyterianism in a postmodern context (who knows what will happen to our particular denomination in this cultural milieu?), I will say that our system has the checks and balances to deal with depravity… And that’s a large reason why I joined.

  6. Reverendmother, I’m pretty sure that was my reaction as well.

    “Loneliness and isolation might be the only places where all are truly welcome.”

    Patrick, Hhhmmmm…. I think you’ve hit on something there. Extremely important.

    Where’s the grant money? At the GA level?

  7. A few months ago, I did an hour and half presentation at a presbytery leadership event on the emerging church. I’d be more than happy to e-mail the presentation to you if you’d like. It’s also available under the resources section of the presbymergent site.

    I heard a podcast with Phyllis Tickle in which she said this emerging phenomenon is actually the next reformation. It’s been 500 years since the last one and now its time for the next. She may be overstating her case a bit, but I for one hope she is right.

    I actually see two movements happening here 1.) emerging from evangelicalism and 2.) emerging from liberalism and I hope that the whole thing lands somewhere right in the middle. The person who best captures, in my mind, this move in both directions is Diana Butler Bass. Her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, is the best picture of what a vibrant emerging faith/church can and should be.

  8. The grant money was from the GA level, office of evangelism and church growth. (more info on the presbymergent site)

    I applaud the office for supporting something different; as Presbyterians we don’t seem to be great risk takers when it comes to planting churches, so it’s refreshing to see some folks taking totally different directions.

  9. Jim,

    I would love to see the presentation.

    I believe Phyllis Tickle is partly right. I think we are in the middle of a reformation; I think the emerging phenomenon is part of it, but not the whole. It will be interesting to seehow things begin to shake out.

  10. When women start producing? Ugh. That is beyond disturbing. Is it a Reformation or simply a backlash? If the middle ground between evangelicalism and liberalism is alt worship led only by men, count me out. Or don’t bother, because I won’t be included anyway!

  11. Jim,
    I agree with you about Diana Butler Bass. Reading this blog early in the day – triggered some reflection through out the rest of the day. She has extensively studied and researched healthy mainline denominational churches and her first two books are about that research. In her book The Practicing Congregation she says “the emerging mainline congregations have theologically moderate-to-liberal messages….they accept the consequences of religious and racial pluralism and multiculturalism, believing in an explicit or implicit universalism; they support expanded leadership roles for women and demonstrate higher tolerance toward gay and lesbian members but they have embraced traditional Christian practices in worship, prayer , moral formation, and life together.” p. 14. It drives me crazy when all the alternative churches are held up as THE emerging church movement. I bet that the crazy and wild church in Corinth emerged differently than the one in Philippi – funny how they both turned out ok!

  12. when women start producing. oh yeah, I get that.

    so the emerging church movement has a lot of patriarchy in it.

    ummm. I don’t know that much about the emerging church movement. enough to be intrigued.

    where is a good place to start?

  13. Diane,

    I’ll echo the posts above. Christianity for the Rest of Us is a great place to start. Diana’s amazing. This is her story (quick version, hope I get it right):

    Diana was writing CFTROU, about vital mainlines and her editor asked her if she ever met Brian McLaren because the editor said he was writing the same book, but coming from a different place. McLaren and Bass met for lunch and found a whole lot of common ground. She went on the board of Emergent Village. And, I would say, she’s made a way and broadened the conversation for all of us.

    From the other stream, you could read McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy or the compilation Emergent Manifesto of Hope.

    Here’s a (2+ hour!) podcast from AAR, via Andy Rowell’s blog, which I got via Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog (I love the Internet). It’s an insightful conversation.

    I hope it’s not a backlash. Actually, from the evangelical perspective that they’re coming from, talking about women as leaders at all is a big step.

    It’s when we talk together that things get weird…. A friend recently went to an emergent conference and someone asked at one of the workshops, “How many of you have women elders?” When people began talking about it, she realized for them, the question was a great, big leap forward. For her, an ordained clergy woman, she thought the matter was way past settled. She was shocked.

    I hope it’s a Reformation–a great, big, all-inclusive revolution in every corner of Christendom. Phyllis Tickle is a brilliant woman. And anyone who spends that much time praying understands the creative power of words. I often wonder if she’s not trying to create a revolution herself…just by saying it.

  14. Tribal Church – you are right.
    I don’t know what’s up with the women producing bit, but I do know that many of the formerly conservative evangelical churches allowed no women in leadership. Several of the churches I know have women preachers, women liturgists, etc. While the women aren’t the lead pastors yet, they will be. It’s amazing that some of these “guys” who grew up in congregations that wouldn’t let women teach/preach are now encouraging women to stand up and lead in the ECM.

  15. Carol,
    I hope there is room for the shaggy haired folks with holes in their ears out there.

    I do not care about postmodern/modern, Presbyterian/evangelical, or robots and pudding. Well I like pudding a lot and robots are freaking neat!

    We are called to serve. We are blessed with a perspective that we are rooted in as we seek to serve. If we are moving into a postmodern era or are currently in one, then we all are postmodern. The tension of the old being shifted through via the emerging new vision is not new. It does happen often. Hindu believe this happens over eons and will always continue to happen.

    Perhaps we need to focus on doing and being rather than worrying about defining and caring out a place at the table.

    Did not Christ offer a place to all?

    I am bummed that the ECM falls short of women, GLBT,and denominationalism engagement. I understand that the ECM is based in a missional posture. What greater mission than to the margins of our churchy culture. “They” are no longer coming to us at the church. We must reach out in fear and trembling to serve the margins. This is what I hope for…

    Sorry for the rant Carol. I am on the back swing of the last two papers. Peace and Blessings, Ryan

  16. Susan,

    Hhmmm… I didn’t realize I was so superstitious… but I hesitate to put it up until the final decision’s made. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the word.

    I just looked up the GA money on the presbymergent site. Twenty k for 2 churches? That’s a very minimal investment for church plants. We need to seriously work on getting more money.

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