Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Disapointing Fizzling and Dying Emergent Church Movement?

(Author's note: I had intended to say somewhere in this long post that these are admitedly simply observations and musings on Emergent Church and the latest controversy all made from a distance and already with a critical eye. If I have missed some nuance or a thread of thought in Emergent I am more than willing to be made familiar with that and be corrected in any misperceptions. Just point the way and give me some evidence. I also have edited some things for clarity and grammar. LEK 6/11/2009, 10:00 am.)
I am commenting on the controversy that rippled through the interwebs around the future of the emergent church movement(EC). I discovered this when I went to the blogs of Julie and Mike earlier this week though it is now a controversy about seven day's old, and erupted while I was fine tuning recent changes made to Reconciler's liturgy, writing a sermon, going to weddings, and anxiously following the fund raising progress of *cino as they sought to purchase property in Three River's Michigan. I don't know that I exactly have a great deal at stake in this debate, though I recently admitted to my friend Tripp (he also has weighed in on this question), that I might just be emergent after all. I have a very conflicted view of the Emergent church, The up/rooted cohort here in Chicago was part of the early conversations that lead the formation of Reconciler. Most of our members have come to us through links from emergent blogs and the Up/Rooted website. Mike and Geoff (and then after we started Nanette Sawyer of Wiker park Grace have been encouragement to us as we started an Ecumenical church plant, and seemed to get the ecclesial point, and the need for ecumenical work. So, I am in someway involved in this conversation/movement, but one might say once removed from it.

I am not surprised that there are those who are ready to pronounce the "Death of Emergent" (Oh so postmodern a thing to do) nor surprised at expressions of disappointment. I might have passed it over without much thought except that people I know seem very troubled by it. As I have retraced what has been said on both sides, both the defense and the expressions of feeling the Emergent has run its course or that it has failed to do something or other, makes sense due to the character of the "movement". I have both wondered and admired that many in the movement simply attempted to provide structure while attempting to skirt, what I have called, in an ecclesiology paper written in seminary, the logic of separation. the EC folk have attempted more or less successfully to not split off into its own thing, another denomination, or subset of Christians. Even so I think one should keep the current expression of disaffection in context and remember that to some degree the movement is itself a movement of disaffection it was just a matter of time before people would become disaffected with it as well. Now I hope Mike and Julie and Geoff and Nannette, don't misunderstand me, for there certainly is plenty to be disaffected with in American Christianity, and I don't fault the disaffection, but it is the logic of separation, the schismatic and protestant ethos that seems to be one of the things in the Emergent Church movement isn't willing to question, and I think this can give rise to misunderstanding. This unwillingess to look at this fundamental logic of Protestantism has also kept me from jumping on the band wagon, and causes me to now sheepishly admit that I find myself somehow in the whole emergent ethos. I don't trust Protestantism (even an emergent kind) and think it is flawed at its origins, thus I'd suggest that for the Emergent church to truly move forward it must radically question its Protestant assumptions, something I do not see it doing and as far as what I have read recently seem quite willing to fall back on Protestant, schismatic and individualistic assumptions. Not that I have a solution, I am just out here trying to puzzle out how one raised as a Protestant questions the very structure of his faith and makes any movement towards anything else.

Another thing I observed in the conversations was either a pretty vague sense of what the church is and thus fairly feeble articulations of what is (or maybe) the relation of the Emergent to the church and denominations and congregations is. Either I saw an un-reflective ecclesiology or an assumed free/believer's church ecclesiology that asserts that the church is just the collection of all the believer's in Jesus Christ but then also uses "church", in contradistinction to the all believers reference, for any and all human structures these believers pragmatically and at times sinfully produce in attempting to follow Jesus. The Kingdom of God is then something different and almost unrelated to church. It is perhaps no surprise that I find this thinking untenable. But mainly it was the way this ecclesiology and theology of the kingdom was simply assumed and thus never articulated clearly, that had me wondering when will Emergent folk take seriously the more robust and truly incarnational and sacramental understandings of "church"?

I do wonder if ecclesiology is what is at stake at the moment, especially as emergent is gaining more adherents among Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists etc., who believe the church is more than the collection of believers in Jesus Christ, who see form and structure as somehow a component of what it means to be church. I wonder if the growth of the emergent movement in these other groups who are not believer's or free church evangelicals, creates an instability in ecclesial assumptions. (I think this is related to Julie's post on language we use and our experiences What if church is structure and as spiritual institution is something one is supposed to be apart of is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, well then if Emergent Church affirms or in someway embraces this view then Nick and others like him may not have a place to go, and this is a question he is asking about emergent. I happen to believe that the church properly conceived is what makes a Christian, there is no being a follower of Jesus Christ apart form the church, However, I can sympathize with Nick's concern (And in fairness he has clarified his points here and here and seems a bit overwhelmed by the reactions of others, and as for me I am more interested in those who took some exception to his disappointment), I have not always held the above belief. I can see the appeal of emphasizing Jesus and downplaying church but as I see it now in so doing one is rejecting the Body of Jesus Christ, which is then also a rejection of Jesus Christ in someway. I certainly can understand that rejection, I at times think that it be the easier less painful path, but I am not willing to ignore that much of Scripture, tradition and history of Christianity. However, if church as institution and structure is simply a pragmatic thing why be committed to it and wish to change it? Why have church at all if it is not necessary for faith in Jesus Christ? However if you believe that the church is something to be committed to even if that commitment is expressed in seeking to change and reform it, well you are going to need a better ecclesiology if you are going to face the truly disaffected who don't see changes and are willing to take Christian spirituality and belief in Jesus as something that can exist without church.

Related to this question of ecclesiology is sense of identity. Clearly both detractors and defenders in the discussion both have or had a strong identity as Emergent. Which seems to me to belie any denials of the Emergent Church as a movement or a new subset of Christian. This is perhaps natural and inevitable, that as one works to change things and finds resistance, that a new and different identity is found. But like I have been questioning denominational identities based on 1 Corinthians 1:10-31 and that our identity is to be first foremost maybe even only Christ, I would question the degree to which an emergent identity is being struggled over, and held onto. The strength of this identity is troubling. Again this is not something I necessarily have a solution or an alternative to, though it is the hope of the vision we had when we started Reconciler that these identities that were other than and more than Christ would be held more lightly. At least it is a hope that has grown in me out of planting a church like Reconciler. You see it seems to me that some of the pain expressed and the great desire to defend Emergent would be much less if Emergent were just a tool in the hands of Christ, it could pass and have its time and it would be fine. Maybe emergent is dead or just much less useful than it was? Maybe it will remain useful for some but something others move beyond? If our identity is truly that of Christ does it really matter? Does it really matter whether I am emergent or not, or if Reconciler is or is not an emergent church? Should we not be more concerned about whether we are or are not growing into the Body of Christ and being built into the temple of God that is the Church? If emergent helps us to grow into the Body of Christ and to be built into that structure founded upon the apostles and Christ then it is a good thing if not it's just another human sectarian reality that will either found another form of Christianity, possibly heretical, or fizzle out and become a historical oddity in the history of the Christian faith. My hope and prayer for all who are in the Emergent church is that it is a tool of the Spirit for the joining together, building into the temple of God, of knitting together as the Body of Christ, and a means of being grafted into the Olive tree of the Israel of God.
I saw glimpses of other things going on in this discussion, but this is already a long post.