what is it?

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After many years of instinctual response, many good conversations with those who are active in it, an official class on the subject, and now an increasing number of books about it I think I have come to a conclusion about the Emerging Church.

However, the Emerging Church has not come to a conclusion about itself, so this is not a judgment but an expression of the trends. There are several paths which still remain for the Emerging Church, and how it chooses as a whole will radically change it, and may in fact help the Church. Or it may not.

Here’s what I see. The Emerging Church has three choices of Being ahead of it. The first choice is it can be an autonomous movement, isolating itself from the broader Church as it seeks to understand its values as the expression of the Church. This essentially argues that the Church as we have known it offers little in the way of future consideration, and little in the way of present participation. Here we can see it fitting in with other movements of the 20th century such as the Campus Crusade or Young Life philosophy, or the Seeker Sensitive philosophy, which happily pursue their course outside the conversation with history or other forms of church. This seems to be the proposition found in Frost and Hirsch. Other churches are beyond hope, so let’s do something new and do our own thing.

Or, the Emerging Church can see itself as the reflection of the Church as a whole, seeking to transform the other churches into understanding that the values and models it expresses are going to be the future of all forms of the Church. This is similar to the autonomous model in a way, but instead of being content doing its own thing, the Emerging Church will see itself as a teaching movement, and will actively seek to change the Church through dialogue, conversation, and real transformation. This path will not just seek to do something new but will seek to show why what is being done is wrong, and will actively “evangelize” the churches in its attempts to re-form the Church as a whole.

This is, in a partial way, how Luther and Calvin understood the Reformation, and in effect the Catholic Church has clearly adapted itself to the Reformation teachings, with Vatican II being essentially more than Luther expected.

Finally, the Emerging Church can see itself as a prophetic movement, neither entirely autonomous nor thinking it is the only expression of the Church that other churches must follow. Instead, it becomes like the monastic movements of history, which gives a forum for those who wish to pursue Christ more deeply, and more thoroughly, while in its exploration informing the broader Church of how to seek Christ within our culture and within our era. This means it will co-exist along the more traditional models, finding peace with them for what they are able to do. Even as it constantly presses the whole Church, it understands the reality that not all people, nor all leaders, are called to embrace the whole of the Emerging Church values and methods.

My judgment is that if it pursues the autonomous course it will be a fleeting movement as it focuses on always being ‘relevant’ and creative, but never settles into being persistent or deep. Like the other movements of this sort it will have an impact but not resonate through history, nor will it transform our communities as it seeks to do.

If it seeks to be a model movement, then it will run into a great deal of frustration as genuinely good Christians really like and find a lot of sustenance in other models of the church. If the goal is to get the Catholic or Orthodox or even the Presbyterian church to embrace the free floating Emerging Church models, then there will only be anger and condemnation when they choose to reject the offered pleas.

However, as a prophetic movement, embracing both its own depths and seeking to understand the depths of the broader church, calling the Church back to its roots while understanding the realities of historical development, it might just be extremely worthwhile. As a monastic movement within the Protestant Church it could be a place where the spiritual, the discontent, the seeking, and the bohemian can find real peace and faith and hope. Some may commit to this their whole lives, others would float between the various models, informing and teaching and showing, without demanding. As it establishes itself for what it is, this prophetic quality would resonate deeply and broadly. For its focus would not be on what others do, either in the positive or the negative, but on becoming what it is for itself according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is no better strategy in spiritual warfare than getting us to obsess about someone else. So too with church movements. And it is in being neither autonomous nor dictorial that the Emerging Church has a real and profound future.

I have no idea which direction this movement will take. Though I suspect the strongest bent is towards the first choice at this point. Not least because this opens the door to an entirely new power structure, and that is a significant temptation, as it has been since the days Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.

Monasteries, however, seem to have had a significantly better ability to persist than ministerial movements.

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