Emerging is dead. Move along. Nothing to see here.

Over at his blog, Scott Daniels — the pastor at First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (PazNaz) and the new dean of the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University — has a post on the death of the emerging church.

This is an interesting post because Scott Daniels is not one of those who announces the death of the emerging church as a capstone to a longtime wish for the death of the emerging church. Arguing the emerging church is dead has become the latest tactic in continued attempts to dismiss the movement as a whole. There’s a strategic value in announcing the death of a perceived enemy. If it’s dead, after all, it doesn’t exist anymore and so anyone trying to continue to make arguments for it can be brushed aside as arguing for an already dead movement.

Though not an emerging church guy himself, Scott Daniels has sought to understand it, sees the value in much of the priorities, and even put his reputation on the line in defending it in his conservative Nazarene denomination. I think the five-part series of posts he wrote last year on the emerging church movement are among the better descriptions I’ve read.

I should probably also add that Amy and I have been attending PazNaz since July of ’09. Those who have followed this blog for a while probably realize how much this says about my respect for Scott Daniels. His thoughts on the emerging church were one among many aspects that helped me resonate with his teaching in a way I didn’t really think possible anymore. (As a sidenote, his sermon series are well worth listening to if you get a chance–his last one on Colossians and his present one on Abraham are, in my opinion, brilliant in an all too rare approachable way).

It should be added that his death announcement of the movement is entirely not triumphalist or condemning. Some of the key points he mentions are more indictments against much of contemporary Evangelicalism than they are parting shots at the submerging emergents.

He notes he is not the first to declare the death of the emerging church. There has been, it seems, about a year long conversation on just this topic, with arguments flying back and forth. If the emerging church were really ‘dead’, of course, there would be no one to argue otherwise, so just the fact there is still passion on the topic probably is enough of a response to the dire declaration.

After some pushback in the comments, Daniels added another very helpful post. He writes, “So a major part of what I think is essentially dead (or dying) in the EC conversation is the expectation that in 50 years what we now think of as the institutional church will be replaced by “emerging” communities of faith.”

This provoked in me some related musings.

One is that I think the death of emerging as a church growth, “the great new thing” is likely not only true, but also is a very good thing. For those of us who felt resonance with the emerging movement in the earliest stages, the flood of interest in the movement by those who either did not really understand what it was about or, on the other side, sought to co-opt the “new thing” with their own particular priorities, was continually troublesome.

Indeed, I would say that it got to the point that some of the most public voices stamped with the emerging label were not really all that emerging. There was a decided mixing of new voices, new theologies, new awareness that got lumped together within a common trend. Which is why I always, and still, consider the Gibbs and Bolger book on emerging churches to be a standard reference. The key distinction for me is between people who were emerging by instinct or emerging by intent.

Gibbs and Bolger, being an early survey, got in tune with people who were pursuing an emerging direction in church without being certain of where the next steps were going to go. They were in moments of discovery and exploration, rather than top-down imposition. This was not a clear or pristine reality, to be sure. The temptation was always there to fall back upon imposition rather than being free with instinct. And, to be sure, even very early on there were leaders of communities who got onto the emerging bandwagon without really having what I call emerging instincts. And their communities suffered because of it.

Within this latter reality is where a lot of my critiques of emerging/missional churches come from. But that’s a whole different topic.

Always there have been men and women who were “emerging” not because they wanted to be part of the next big thing, but because they really were being driven by an irresistible force to explore new, or renewed, ecclesial realities. That was always the case, even when “Emerging!” was the toast of the town.

It was said among those who knew the heart of the movement that the “real” emerging people never went to conferences, didn’t get caught up as devotees to the guru of the week, and did not really get any kind of publicity at all. If “conference” Emerging! was the only emerging church that people saw, it is likely they never really ever saw what was truly emerging in the church.

Some of the key, truly emerging leaders did write books, so some of them got exposure, but for the most part what was publicly emerging was never really emerging. It was repackaged ministry strategies from the other church-growth, new-method, gotta-catch-’em-all mentality that derives more from mid-20th century priorities than postmodern sensibilities.

And if that is dead, then it’s probably because it never really was all that alive to begin with. It was a ecclesial animatronics, not a living body.

But just as Gibbs and Bolger tapped into some curious movements going on throughout the world 5+ years ago, so too are there still such communities. I’d even go as far to say that any church planting that happens in our culture will almost certainly have much more of an emerging feel to it than a traditional, institutional feel. So, while established churches are not going to be demolished and resurrected as coffee houses with vodka-and-oreo communion, small tables, and progressive theologies–there’s still a significant amount of emerging church ecclesiology that, I think, is extremely influential and important.

I’m not going to delve into my evidence for such a continued movement. Rather, I’m going to finish this out by saying why church leaders and theologians need to continue to deal with the presence of the emerging church movement (however it may be named).

My key argument for this is the fact that the era of institutional domination is over. This is not to proclaim the end of the institutional church, but rather to suggest that there is an increasing number of non-aligned followers of Christ. In past eras–as recently as my parents generation–to reject the church went hand in hand with rejecting Jesus. Frustrations with the church propelled men and women to look for answers in alternative religions. Now, however, people are increasingly aware that the faults of a particular congregation do not reflect the inadequacy of Christ.

But where are such people to go? The failures of the church model of our era leave a massive amount of people in a vague stage of spiritual discontent and destitution. In experiencing massive frustration or abuse in the context of a particular church, they do not see the pursuit of Christ as being possible in such an institutional setting. This reality either leads to spiritual depression and nominality, or it leads to a more active embrace of alternative expressions of Christian community that more fully reflect the call of Christ in a particular person’s life.

For me, the term “emerging church” is still useful, and the reality is not dead, because if there are non-aligned, non-propertied, non-institutional christian communities then it is helpful to use a term to describe their reality. “Emerging church” fits as well as anything else, because even in its profound inadequacy it at least has the benefit of a season of exposure and thus is a starting place for continued conversation. Maybe another word might be less baggage laden, but it’s tiresome to keep throwing out new words in church conversations.

Saying there will continue to be people who find discontentment in particular church models is not to say that Church as a whole is terrible and that spiritual maturity is impossible in an institutional setting. There are, in fact, some very excellent institutional church communities that spark amazing devotion to Christ, and these can be found in just about any Christian tradition. So, I’m not generalizing discontent. But, I am arguing against a stance that says “because I have found a good experience in church, everyone must have the same experiences as me.”

This is, by the way, a very interesting distinction between me and Amy. Amy has had very fruitful and very empowering experiences in her church experiences. She has had amazing mentors who were real pastors to her. I have not really had that. I have had seasons of it, but these were rare, and mixed in with what are quite depowering experiences. There are amazing possibilities in churches to spark new life, but there is also a great tendency to undermine and discourage. Realizing different people have different experiences is essential. The church is always a particular reality, and anytime we try to generalize it we run into trouble.

So those who have experienced significant frustration, or worse, in their particular contexts are and will continue to look for alternative expressions of Christian community. Emerging churches offer a holistic expression of this in a way that, I think, is not only an alternative but also may be more Biblically valid. But that too is a whole other conversation.

It is important to continue to realize the life of the emerging church because if we declare the death and move on, we are abandoning the men and women who participate in these communities, or need to participate in such communities, to the outskirts of the camp. We are declaring them non-people in the body of Christ, and as such we are abandoning them to the whims and winds and wolves which circle the people of God, looking to pick off the weakened and weary.

Instead of this, my interest continues to be in the emerging church conversation because I think that as a budding theologian I not only have the opportunity but also the obligation to help these alternative expressions of church as I can. As a theologian, my role is not in inventing a new model of church nor is it to give some kind of stamp of validity on any given community. Rather, I see my role as being a watcher, listening and reflecting on what I see and what I hear, putting this into the context of church history and theology. In doing this I can help deepen, steer, and effectively critique how such communities are proposing we pursue Christ in our era.

If we declare them dead, we abandon them to the trends and tendencies which really can lead to death. We abandon them to so much of what previous generations assumed, that the institutional church is identical with the person of Christ, and that to find despair in the former means the latter has no reality.

Rather than declaring them dead, however, we can weep over that which death has touched, while still full of hope that what is emerging may yet still come forth, in a form that no longer stinketh, but full of life as a testimony to the wide work of Christ and Spirit in this world.

I have that hope. Indeed, I think that the Spirit’s work in this world is going to continue to surprise us, and continue to enliven us as we explore new forms of community and Christian devotion in this era.

It is a dance, after all.

This entry was posted in emerging church, God We Wouldn't Expect, Holy Spirit, It's a Dance, Jesus, missional, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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