I am, more and more, being identified as part of the emerging church, especially since I’m a part of presbymergent. I get calls from people in all sorts of denominations, some strangers and some friends, asking me the same thing: “What do you think of the emerging church? Is it a fad? Should we be paying attention to this?”
And I respond. I try to answer subjectively and succinctly, but the words tumble out, quickly, with a swirl of emotion. Let me try to dissect a couple of things that I’m feeling.
First and foremost is excitement. When I was in seminary, I soaked up all the postmodern classes and thought that I could, from homiletics, to theology, to psychology of religion, to biblical interpretation. I loaded up my schedule, took way more than was required, just so I could soak it all in. The members of my ordination committee in Lincoln, Nebraska, looked at my transcript, wrinkled their brows, and asked, “What good is all of this going to do you in the parish?”
I didn’t know. I just knew that I was left with this thought mixture that felt combustible and comfortable at the same time. My seminary prepared me well, but it would be up to my good colleagues and me to embody what we learned. And, I had a sense that my seminary professors were as eager as we were to see what the church was going to look like when we began to engage in leadership in meaningful ways.
Now we are. The emerging church paves an avenue to do just that. And it’s thrilling to see what’s springing up from it all. It’s still combustible and comforting. And, I surge with all kinds of hope as I watch amazing students graduate. I can’t wait to see what they will do as they keep engaging in the church and in culture in meaningful ways.
Second is fear. If I could lie down for a moment into the blog-as-therapy couch, I have to say that I have these deep, gaping wounds from my many years in the Evangelical church. I have spent considerable time in prayer and in a real counselor’s chair sorting it all out, and I’m healing. But when I engage in the emerging church conversation, I can feel my scars burning.
I was in an Evangelical school in the Midwest (like the leadership of many of my emerging colleagues). I was just as innovative as they were. But the difference was, while we were all in the same Evangelical context, they were being scouted out by magazines and publishing companies, and I wasn’t allowed to have a voice. At all.
I was always a deeply fervent, religious girl, who began writing out sermons when I was twelve years old. I can’t explain how difficult it was to grow up with such loud calling, with God wooing me into the ministry every step of the way, and then to have the church and everyone around me telling me that I was sinful and bad because of it. “Women should keep silent in church,” I was reminded over and over again. I can tell you that I still have a physiological reaction (I shake and sweat) when I recall those years.
I found amazing grace in the denominational church, where my gifts were recognized, encouraged, and even celebrated at times. It was a place where strong women had paved the road before me. And I never, ever want to go back into a space where I lose my voice again.
I’ve heard Tony Jones say that the Evangelical church encourages innovation, while the denominational church will put it through a battery of ordination exams psychological tests until there is no innovation left in a person.
I would have to disagree. I was not encouraged–not in any way–to be innovative.
The emerging church is largely emerging from evangelical circles–or, at least that’s where the publishing companies and magazines still do their scouting. Which makes sense, since evangelicals have a much larger marketing audience.
I think that the conversation is fluid enough right now for people like me to still have a voice, but I’m not sure how long this door of opportunity will be open, because I’m not sure if the emerging church leadership (namely, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt) is willing to keep it open. I don’t think they realize it, but they have a lot of power right now.
Deconstruction is a powerful act.
I’ve spoken with Doug. I’ve sat in meetings with him and I’ve given him my sad story, trying to explain the importance of denominational church from my perspective. As much as I liked him, he didn’t buy it. His point, I believe, is that the culture is changing drastically, and the denominational church, with all of its hierarchy and beauracracy, is over.
I said, “But we could have both/and.”
And he said, “No. We can’t.”
I’ve never met Tony. He was invited to our Presbytery to speak, and although I couldn’t make it to the actual event (I was at a book signing in New York), I designed all of the posters for it, did the publicity, and worked really hard to get the word out.
When the committee met after the event, no one talked about how it went. Then later, one of the planners (a huge supporter of the emerging church) said, “It was really strange, Tony was very careful about where he sat. He didn’t want to be in a pulpit. He didn’t want to be above the congregation. He wanted to be among us. But he didn’t seem to realize that when the words came out of his mouth, it didn’t matter where he was sitting. Because everything that he said was putting us down.”
I’m not much of a fighter, and I’m certainly not trying to pick one… but as long as I’m being identified with the emerging movement, I need to remember how important my voice is. I don’t mean that it’s important to anybody else, I mean that it’s important to me. I realize that the denominational church has given me this precious gift, and I need to use it.
I can’t keep encouraging people to come and beat up on the church I love. The church that nurtured and supported me for so many years. As we walk through this cycle of life in our denominational churches, as we see the bare limbs reaching up, I remember what my husband often says. He reminds me of the significance of sitting with the dying, honoring their years, and protecting their dignity in that process. It’s one of the most important things that we do as pastors. And it’s the same with our churches.
But, we also know that the cycle hasn’t stopped. We see the new life springing up everywhere among the brittle leaves, and I want to encourage that growth as well.
And so, when I speak to denominational leaders, I tell them what I’m writing to you. There is a wonderful, spiritual movement. New life that’s growing up in all corners of Christianity.
As for the “E” word. Now, that’s something much smaller. It’s a marketing label now. And the more it becomes defined with maps like this one, and if the leadership cannot see a way for “both/and” to thrive, I don’t know how long I will be allowed to be a part of it.