Emerging traditions

I’m banging my way through this book, ever concerned about the deadline that’s looming, close on the horizon. I’m writing about cultural shifts, and how they affect our spiritual communities in a new generation.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, who is in my writing group and is helping me with the project a great deal, asked me, “It’s like emerging church for the mainline?”

“Hmmm… well… yes… sort of … I guess….”

I am, as many of you know, in a constant struggle with realizing that paramount shifts to postmodernism have occurred, knowing that I am postmodern, and accepting that people label me emerging. I am a part of presbymergent and have great hope for the creative energy that flows there, but not entirely comfortable with all things emerging. Yet, as Shawn Coons and Jim Bonewald have reminded me on occasion, there are different emerging church movements, not just one. That’s comforting.

One of the main things that I have difficulty with within the emerging church movements (even the denominational-mergents) is the quick assumption that those who are emerging from an evangelical tradition are somehow more in touch with culture than us—the stuffy, old, hierarchical mainliners.

We are far from perfect. We have important questions to ask ourselves, significant changes that will be made. And many of those questions are being asked in emerging church circles. 

If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I’m not only emerging from the mainline church, but also from the evangelical church in which I grew up. I was educated in both. They both reside uncomfortably within me. With that perspective, the thought that evangelicalism is more in tune with postmodern culture than mainline denominations is really, really odd.

Evangelicalism is, on the surface, much more culturally flexible. Many evangelical congregations will change their worship style if they know that it will attract more members. They may not like it, but they’ll do it. Since the focus is outward, they easily alter their traditions to the surrounding culture. Their main goal is evangelizing, so they adapt to different advertising techniques, image makeovers, and technological advances. Evangelicals quickly grasp on to trends.

And, most importantly, they plant new churches. They have a deep sense that the best way to reach out to a “different people group” is to start a new congregation.

In comparison, when we talk about planting churches in Presbyterian circles, we instantly point out the failure rate, and argue that it’s a bad investment (as if closing churches, hoarding money, and turning away new leadership is a really great business plan…). Our cultural standards and advertising almost always favor the tastes and preferences of the elderly, and in an established church, any deviation is rare and difficult to pull off. There can be a sense that new generations need to develop an appreciation for our practices, while we have little patience for any adaptation of our traditions.

Yet, I have to say, beyond that surface level, when you scratch just a little bit, the mainline church makes a lot more sense than the evangelical tradition in a postmodern era. That’s why I converted and that’s why I stay.

We have embraced scientific thought, not expecting the newest discoveries to bow and bend to a six-day creation story. We have wrestled with biblical literalism, and taken postmodern insights in hermeneutics seriously. We have questioned theories of atonement for decades. We have upheld the inherent value and equality of women in our homes, workplaces, political arenas, and congregations. We have been engaging in social justice issues, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, responding to disasters, and helping the homeless. We do not do these things only for Christians or as a manipulative evangelistic tool. But we have also been doing it in the public sphere, working for change in people’s lives, because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of humans, of “the Other.”

Communities that are emerging from the evangelical tradition are beginning to wrestle with many of these things, but they have a lot of work ahead of them before they catch up with the mainlines.

Where does that leave us now?  We have a cadre of congregations that have been formed in the mold, tastes, and expectations of fifty years ago. Will we, the mainline church, be able to open ourselves up a bit, and welcome a culture of people who do not long for the 50s or even 60s? Will we be able to welcome the reforming of our sacred traditions in a new culture? Or, will we allow our fears to overwhelm us?

I guess what I’m asking is this: Will we allow our congregational cultures to be as vigorous and engaging as our great academic and theological traditions have been? Will we begin to wrestle with the important questions of planting churches? And will we allow our congregations to be reformed and always reforming?

the photo’s by Diana Pappas


15 thoughts on “Emerging traditions

  1. Carol, I think the last 4 paragraphs of this post could serve as an outline for your book. I love the paragraph where you list all the things the mainline church has been doing, especially in the last 5 decades or so. I wonder if that has been claimed as much as it could be, and used as a powerhouse for the next phase of church leadership.

  2. God I hope so!
    Carol, you know where i stand with the denomination and its way of being church…I pray creative, dangerous, daring, and faithful people step up and heed their call to lead. We need it.

  3. I think the great strength of the mainline denominations are our theological roots. As a Presbyterian, I find Calvin’s teachings to be relevant no matter if I am in 1968, 1988 or 2008. His insights into human and organizational behavior, his trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us in everything from interpreting Scripture to interpreting politics, his belief that there is a plan at work in the chaos is pure gold.
    If we can be true to our theology and be flexible about everything else, I am convinced we can grow into the future.

  4. I don’t mean to speak for Mark, but I recently heard that 40% of the PCUSA self-identifies as “conservative” or “very conservative.” Whether or not that number is accurate, it’s definitely fair to say that a large proportion of the mainline church is comprised of evangelicals. Perhaps that’s why it’s a bit of a misleading distinction to posit “the mainline” over against “evangelicals.”

    I would also say that the entire paragraph beginning “We have embraced…” could easily be said by an evangelical as well. (Except, perhaps, for the line about questioning the atonement theories–though I would quibble with the latent assumptions of that claim)

    In other words, a strong argument can be made that the mainline church is largely evangelical, and therefore that the statement “the mainline church makes more sense than the evangelical tradition” doesn’t hold water. Without “the evangelical tradition,” there simply is no “mainline church.”

  5. Good question. I was afraid you would ask me that–I have no citation for that statistic, when i say I “heard” it, that’s the truth. However, the person i heard it from was referring to some Presbyterian Panel report. But I’m too lazy to look things up, I would much prefer to spout unverified stats. And of course you’re right “conservative” is a slippery term. Although, to be fair, so is “evangelical” and “mainline.”

    However, I think I could even omit that particular number and my larger point would remain intact.

  6. There’s no doubt about that. The labels are slippery and the caricatures are often unhelpful. And as a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, my evangelical education was much more on the left than most conservative Presbyterians. A six-day creation, gender complimentarianism, biblical inerrancy–these things were never questioned.

    There are just times when I feel the need to push back. I have heard all of my life how irrelevant mainlines are. And, in emerging church circles, I keep hearing it. There are many things that we do not do well. But then… there are a lot of things that we’re really, really good at. Thinking about gender, hermeneutics, atonement, sexuality–we’ve done some really amazing work on these.

  7. Interesting Mark, can you expand?

    Sorry I didn’t check back sooner. I’ve skimmed through the other posts and these, but most of this is off-the-cuff, so my apologies if I say something someone else already said without my noticing.

    I said “I still have trouble thinking of “evangelical” and “mainstream” as two distinct entities.” I certainly have two different definitions for each word. I just mean that I see many people who are “evangelical” in “mainline” denominations. (As a point of clarification, I did mean “mainline” rather than “mainstream” although it seems that most comments intuitively understand this.)

    There’s a lot of discussion in various places (I frequent Scot McKnight’s blog: http://www.jesuscreed.org, in which this comes up from time to time) on whether the term “evangelical” can be redeemed beyond its increasingly-strong connotation of affiliation with certain right-wing political causes. Perhaps it’s not worth the trouble to try to redeem it, but I think it’s a good word. It emphasizes the Christian commitment to share the good news of Jesus with all those we come into contact with. For that reason alone, I tend to side with those who consider the word worth redeeming.

    I’ve attempted, over time, to unpack these kinds of concepts in my own blog. Here’s a link to posts I’ve given the keyword “evangelical.” A word of warning: as often as not, I’m critical of many I perceive within the evangelical label. Even so, it remains a label I claim for myself. One of several to be sure, but it’s still one I lay claim to.

  8. Isn’t it true that Evangelicals are one of the main groups to make this dichotomy? Their apologetics often is against the “Mainline liberals”. They have made their bread and butter on that shallow definition. I would say that most “Conservative” Presbyterians probably would not be recognized as evangelical by many mainstream conservative Evangelicals from non-denominational traditions.

  9. If I may be so bold as to come into a conversation as one new to the blog. I agree and disagree with your emphasis at parts Carol. Sure, the mainline has been struggling with “biblical literalism” (a most unnuanced phrase to be sure), but most “emergings” kids I know seem to think that Mainline historical work was captive to logical positivism and modernity. In which case, the well worn paths that culminated in Bultmann have been slowly eroding ever since Barth to where now, the most pioneering work done in biblical criticism is almost exclusively done by evangelicals because their evangelistic tendencies have led them to embrace new epistomological frameworks…not least when they can beat the Mainline at their own game! 🙂

    In the same way, though we (I speak as a “Mainliner”) emrace “scientific thought,” that science has been shown to be inherently biased and its evolution non-linear (Kuhn). Here too, younger “post-moderns” will challenge the way in which the Mainline does science.

    And questioning atonement has sometimes meant not substituting anything in it’s place around the mainline. In the love of tradition many “emergents” and “new evangelicals” are connecting with other atonement theories, such as Christus Victor, or embracing multiple understandings.

    And I find this bit a little haughty: “We have upheld the inherent value and equality of women in our homes, workplaces, political arenas, and congregations. We have been engaging in social justice issues, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, responding to disasters, and helping the homeless. We do not do these things only for Christians or as a manipulative evangelistic tool. But we have also been doing it in the public sphere, working for change in people’s lives, because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of humans, of “the Other.”

    The beginnings of women in ministry did not stem from good liberal thought, but came about as a result of the missionary boom in the late 19th century. That took hold in greater ways amongst the mainline later to be sure though. And there is an almost hint in the phrasing that since “mainliners do engage in social justice” evangelicals “do not.” I may be reading into your phrase so correct me if I am wrong. But if that is the inference I would beg you to look at statistics again which continually show, despite the bad press, that Evangelicals give more money and time to the poor than liberals. I’ve heard it multiple times in multiple studies. And it is not used as an evangelistic manipulation tool. That has happened, when it has, and it rarely does, amongst Catholics more than anyone.

    All that to say, as I just said on another post of yours, I agree; the Mainline has much to offer the Christian community and I look forward to offering that with you.

  10. “the most pioneering work done in biblical criticism is almost exclusively done by evangelicals because their evangelistic tendencies have led them to embrace new epistomological frameworks…”

    Really? You think so? What about feminist criticism? And the liberationists? And black theology? It’s been a very rich time for biblical criticism, and I’ve been amazed at the volume and diversity.

    But, I admit, I’ve haven’t read much in the evangelical biblical criticism department in 10 years. Who are the pioneers?

    No, I wouldn’t say that evangelicals don’t engage in social justice. However, my experience with social justice and evangelicalism is certainly from a very conservative perspective. I went to Teen Missions every summer as a teen. As a missions student at Moody Bible Institute, I did a whole lot of social justice work (much more than in my Presbyterian seminary), but there was always a strong emphasis on “saving the body in order to save the soul,” which saddened me.

    I was also perplexed that we would roll up our sleeves and work hard in Cabrini Green, but we would never work in the political sphere to do something systemically to help the poor.

    I do know about women in the ministry and the mission boom. The reason I became a missions major is because I sensed a call into ministry, and as an evangelical woman, twenty years ago (I was 16, filling out my college apps), that was the only thing that I knew I could do.

    Sadly, though, my calling was never taken seriously in the evangelical church. In fact, I was treated very poorly because I felt called. I was told regularly that I was sinning because I wanted to be a pastor. (Although, now, I sometimes read “I wish she was still an evangelical” reviews of Tribal Church. Which is nice.)

    So, joining the mainline was a tremendously grace-filled experience for me. And sometimes I like to push back on the anti-denominational screeds that I so often hear emerging from those of us who are emerging.

  11. Carol,

    I do grieve with you that your calling to ministry as a woman has been met with distrust and blockades. I came from a Pentecostal heritage which has always said: “God has obviously given these women the ability to teach…Who are we to question God?” So as I have come into contact with those who do not support women in ministry (anglo-catholics in my own tradition, and Reformed types such as Presbyterians) I have been just as frustrated as you!

    Certainly, I do not mean to diminish liberation and feminist criticism, they are very important. I would point out that liberation theology is ironically strongest in Roman Catholicism, where the interpretive hegemony is still strong as iron! In the New Testament I would point to Richard B Hays, N T Wright, Richard Bauckham, Scot McKnight, Marianne Meye Thompson (a presbyterian if memory serves), Ben Witherington III to name just a few. In the OT I would point to figures like John Goldingay. I would also note that every one of them supports women in ministry and support, in fact emphasise!, justice in action. N T Wright continually gets flack for his “liberal” politics, Hays and McKnight are pacifists, Witherington is practically a feminist himself!

    I also agree that the theology behind social justice in some evangelical circles is faulty, but not for all, just like some liberal theology is faulty 🙂

    I hope not to give the impression that I am arguing with you, just trying to broaden the conversation.


  12. Oh, and I am so there with you and the anti-denominationalism. In fact, I too get frustrated with my emergent friends who are, yet who want to practice post-foundationalist communal interpretation. If we all go off and do our own thing, is anybody accountable to each other? I need the whole church to correct me if I am wrong, not just let everyone talk as if everybody is right!

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