The emerging church


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.


21 thoughts on “The emerging church

  1. Carol,

    1) There is, of course, room for you in the conversation. I appreciate your ideas and your perspectives.

    2) I’m sorry that people considered me “putting them down.” Honestly, I sometimes think it’s hard for mainline denominational types to take any criticism at all. They’re quick to disparage evangelicals, but struggle to hear about their own weak points.

    3) For the record: I’m a child of the mainline, not an evangelical. And I’m ordained by a mainline denomination.

  2. The discussion to which you linked is really interesting, in a somewhat horrifying way. It’s ironic to call something “emergent” or “emerging” when the orthodox approach to women’s leadership (or lack thereof) is part of it.
    Really, all authentic ministry needs to be emerging, arising from the local gathered body in response to the questions: “How can we best be faithful to God in this time and place?” “What is God calling this body of Christ to be and do?” And I believe you can do that whether you wear jeans and tattoos or a business suit and tie or (like me) the togs of a lately-professional suburban mom.
    Your voice is important to me, and I’m grateful to get to “hear” it.

  3. Thanks, Tony, for clarification on all of the above.

    You said, “I sometimes think it’s hard for mainline denominational types to take any criticism at all.”

    I wonder why that is. I struggle with it quite a bit. Whenever there’s mention that something’s not working, there’s this brick wall… but I’m not sure exactly what it’s held together with.

    We like to beat ourselves up a whole lot, though. I hate going to denominational meetings because if we’re not beating ourselves up, we’re beating each other up. It can be pretty miserable.

    I look forward to having these conversations face-to-face some day…

  4. The emergent village website has lots of interesting articles, all (?) ofwhich are written by men… The emerging women get one post a week, and it is nothing but a series of links.

    In your dealings with folks have you been able to figure out why that is?

    Because for a movement that claims to be intentional and to not be bound by convention, that looks very, very bad.

  5. reverendmother,

    I feel a bit inept in answering this because I’m not directly involved in Emergent Village. I often hear that EV is intentional about involving women. That the face of emergent village, the authors and speakers are often white men, but the actual gatherings and leadership are much more diverse.

    That said, it looks bad. And so there’s the question, why aren’t there more women authors and speakers?

    I think that is a place where I can speak, as a post-evangelical woman, and since this is largely a post-evangelical movement.

    It just took a long, long time for me to begin to form the words. I grew up being told that women were only in leadership positions to destroy men. When I finally pursued a call into ordained ministry, I had to re-negotiate everything. Some of my closest friends quit speaking to me. I wasn’t even sure that my own family would accept me.

    It’s just a really hard transition.

  6. I’m honestly just skipping across the surface of the whole Emergent/Emerging/whatever “thing”. I can say, though, that I’m already sick and tired of this round of labeling. I’m not even convinced that the labels actually mean anything that’s discernible without asking each individual who is using them. They seem to apply to a wide variety of unrelated things and a handful of authors at most. The main thread connecting them seems to consist of using a digital projector in worship, not having a pulpit and casual wear in worship. I mean that only half-jokingly.

    I just resist labels, because they’re almost always something someone is trying to impose on me, and they are almost always wrong. Maybe they’re helpful in some situations as a sort of shorthand, but from the sound of it there isn’t even an answer to a question like “Does the Emergent/Emerging/whatever church support women in leadership positions?” At least with the dying, much-maligned “mainline” denominations, there’s an answer to a question like that.

    In short, I’m happy to sit back and watch other people do the work of defining whatever it is they’re trying to do. I’m okay watching this bandwagon go past. If it turns out to be something truly good, then I’m not ashamed to run to catch up with it, but at this point I’m too worried about finding any kind of call, much less one that fits a particular brand-name.

  7. Carol, my jaw hit the floor when I read this (in a good way).

    Thank you for putting to words my own excitement at a conversation that is so welcoming and inclusive, and my fears at a leadership that sometimes reminds me of the “cool kids” at my high school who were exclusive without realizing it.

    Thanks for identifying and promoting a movement that is not afraid to try and embrace new things — and thanks for standing up for a very old heritage that still has so much good to accomplish in the world.

    Finally, a very good friend of mine was nearing the end of her journey from “Evangelical” to “Atheist,” and briefly paused to explore this thing called the “Emerging Church.” She noted the lack of any hard and fast verbiage supporting ordination of women, or even the place of women in church leadership…and then went quietly along her way. I doubt she’ll ever consider us again.

    Raise your voice, Carol. It needs to be heard.

  8. Thanks, Neal.

    It is incredibly exciting, isn’t it? I mean, on so many fronts: the way we communicate, build community, share power, engage in activism, so many things are altering. With technology advancing, along with such a deep spiritual renewal, it’s just a really amazing time to be in the church, to watch how it unfolds.

    The shifts are certainly cultural, involving people of every age. But… here we are, those before us have made a way so that women are free to speak and the focus of theology has shifted to include so much diversity. And we’re a part of the most innovative generation that our country has ever seen. Wow.

  9. when I read your post, I first thought of the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, back in the early part of the 20th century, and that it was integrated for those first few years: but then slowly that changed, and now Pentecostals are just as segregated (generally speaking) as every other denomination.

    I do think that that the hierarchy of mainline denominations (mine included) make it more difficult for them to be innovative in some ways. Evangelicals also have their own inflexibilities.

    Why can not the mainline see be as flexible in other ways as they have been responsive to women’s gifts for ministry?

    Tony Jones is from my neck of the woods. I saw his new book at our bookstore. He’s going to be at a B & N near here. I wish I could go and hear him!

    As far as not taking criticism, I do think that there is a lot of fear in the mainline right now, perhaps resulting in defensiveness.

  10. “Why can not the mainline see be as flexible in other ways as they have been responsive to women’s gifts for ministry?”

    I wonder about this a lot. In the local church, I’ve served places that get upset if I move a candle a 1/4″ to the left.

    Why is that candle there in that spot? Because it’s worked well there for the last 200 years, and there’s really no reason for the new young pastor to be moving it. It gets very exhausting.

    But, my hope is that the larger church will begin to see this opportunity. In the next twenty years, we’re going to be closing a lot of churches. And it’s just amazing that the closings coincide with a crop of innovative pastors who are itching to start new churches. When I graduated from seminary, I thought I was the only one in the whole denomination who wanted to start a new church. Now, I meet people all the time who do.

    If we can support them well, and then let them go and do their thing… this could be an amazing next twenty years.

  11. Here in the UK the phenomenon of institutional church collapse is perhaps 15 years ahead of the US, not least because European society is deeply secular. There are strong ethnic churches and pentecostal ones. The Emerging/Emergent Church conversation is not advanced. Instead we have ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’ which range from the genuinely innovative to a data projector and a coffee. Joining mainline church when the congregation is small and old, often in a large building, is a hard call – and I think that leads to the Fresh Expressions movement seeing little future for mainline church, whatever they say in their literature! My perception is that FE is so often just disenchanted mainline church people rather than anything fresh! But in the mainline churches there is wisdom in what it means to be church and the riches of a deep tradition. I reckon if we do the basics right – with particular attention to good process in church -then mainline may yet surprise and be the way ahead – even though it will change profoundly.

  12. Oy, the moving of candles.
    Last month we broke an actual loaf of bread to share at communion, and a round of complaint never mentioned to me took place. I was in essence accused of trying to spread the flu!
    Back to stale pita squares this month, with no one bothering to consult or inform me.

  13. Carol,

    I read this post and I thank God for you and your wonderful voice. Thank you for sharing your gift, your very valuable perspective, and basically just for putting your neck out on the line. God bless you.

  14. Carol,
    I’m old-school, mainline, but not blind. There is no denying mainstream protestantism is in deep trouble. I wouldn’t waste time and energy disputing that. We must also acknowledge that there are amazing mainstream congregations in every denomination that are vibrant and vital–that get it–that know what it means to be deeply involved in this world today and that create a relevant spiritual home for their membership while engaging in ministries that reach out into a wounded world of poverty, disease, expolitation, and underdevelopment. The mainline churches are trying to address these issues, by the way, efforts I don’t want to see end and which constitute profound faithfulness to the gospel. I think these obituaries for the church pronounced by advocates of new ways of being the church (and I celebrate them) are, premature if not, well, bordering on silly. These churches, while declining, aren’t going anywhere–they are evolving–and one day the mainstream churches will resolve the conflicts, primarily the LBGT wars, that are draining energy and resouces and driving people away. I’m also disturbed by the casual indifference to women and the invisibility of communities of color in the whole discussion of the emerging/emergent church. I’d want to acknowledge significant differences between the white protestant mainstream and the African American protestant tradition, but the AA churches are a part of this larger family and many of them are thriving. What does this have to say about the decline of the mainstream? These matters are terribly complex aren’t they!?

  15. Yes! They are terribly complex. And from your important perspective, I imagine they are even more so.

    I’ve always served small, growing, vibrant mainline churches. I usually don’t run into the “death of the mainline” until I go to a church conference, or a national report comes out. Then I’m always quite startled.

    The mainline’s evolving, for sure. Hopefully, it will continue to evolve in all of its rich diversity. Actually… I hope that evolves into a much more diverse people.

    Thanks, Michael. I always value what you have to say.

  16. “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.”

    Wow Carol- those are some of the most affirming words I’ve heard spoken of mainline denominations in a while. Thank you. Bare limbs and brittle leaves, but years to honour and dignity to protect. Not in a nostalgic sense, but because there are still people who call these places home, and the people matter.
    I think that’s what i’ll do as i toy/flirt/entertain the challenge of being a mainline ordinand. How to stay subversive within a rigid denomination, yet still honour it’s roots and people. That’s my little journey for now.

    (I tagged this post on Bloglines to come back to it later, and only read it tonight. I’m glad I did.)

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