why the emerging church isn’t dead or dying

I came across yet another series of posts announcing more “end of emerging” arguments. As people who have long been involved in the movement progress in their own theological and ministerial understanding, it’s not surprising to see them realize they have differences with some others in the movement. Learning involves the formation of opinions, and lots of learning means being able to see things which weren’t as apparent early on. There’s also the fact that people are on trajectories, leading once shared paths to go different directions.

So, we have Jeremy over at novus lumen announcing theological differences as his end, and Sarah at Emerging Mummy finally giving up on the conversation after being a part for a long time. Andrew Jones had his famous death of emerging post late last year.

Personally speaking, I’ve never been more excited about the future of the church, and this is due to what I see as a developing theology as framed by emerging church values.

I don’t think the emerging church is dying or over. Theology aside for the moment–if this is possible–there are other issues at work.

First, and maybe foremost, in our day and age there is significant dissatisfaction of traditional forms of church. This is not necessarily new, but what is new is the increased awareness that the pursuit of Christ does not equal participation in any given traditional expression of church.

There are a lot of people who really seek Christ, who have been absolutely burned or undermined in this pursuit by church experiences. Indeed, I would add to this the argument that for the most part churches are very good about leading Christians to a mid-range level of maturity, past which they offer very little support or guidance. Those who seek a deeper level either pursue the ministry and lead a church or such people leave the church often thinking they have reached the end of Christian theology altogether. They see the end of what the church can teach as the whole of what theology has to offer. There is no monastic opportunity in Evangelical churches that points to paths of increased spiritual maturity within an alternate, enriching Christ-oriented environment.

All this means that there are people who still strongly seek Christ and spiritual maturity, but no longer trust the church to offer either of these. Oftentimes, these people find others who share the same situation and goals. These people then begin to informally gather.

With the increased breakdown in ecclesial dominance in society and the breakdown of denominational identity, there just is no going back to the era in which rigidly formed, limited number, authoritarian oriented churches that meet in specifically designed buildings are the entire definition of what it means to gather in Christian community. Paul admonishes us to not give up on meeting with each other, but he does not insist this is on Sunday, in a big building, with a service of either drawn out readings or a five song worship set with a half-hour sermon.

People are going to continue to meet outside the bounds of any officially designated traditional church. What are these to be called?
Who is going to give them guidance in their pursuits?

Second, we are in an era of immense learning and education. Even with the common laments of our current educational institutions, we are in fact living in a time in which more people are more educated than at any time in history. A pastor is no longer the most highly educated person in a church, and oftentimes they are not even the most highly theologically educated. So, in even traditional denominations there is a breaking down of traditional authoritarian structures as people engage the topics of theology and ministry with an increasingly mature and informed perspective–a perspective that often brings with it differences of opinions and approaches. Good leaders will help guide and incorporate these into the holistic functioning of a community gathering in unity that reflects the diversity of the Spirit’s work.

Third, there are the traits of the emerging churches themselves. It is easy to get caught up in how one person or another talks about theological concepts or reacts to issues of our era. However, more often than not these are not at the core of emerging church values. These are worth repeating here, as noted by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger in their great study of Emerging Churches:

1. Identifying with Jesus (a holistic understanding of his ministry)
2. Transforming secular space (moving past the idea there is a secular/sacred split)
3. Living as community
4. Welcoming the stranger (holistic hospitality)
5. Serving with generosity (contributing to the community)
6. Participating as producers (a holistic understanding of the spiritual gifts given to each person)
7. Creating as created beings (creativity is part of our participation with the Spirit
8. Leading as a body
9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities.

If you want to dispute emerging church theology, these are the targets. Anything else is avoiding the conversation and emphasizing theological distinctives on what may be important doctrines, but are not defining emerging church issues. Indeed, I would argue it is absurd to see these elements as only the property of a progressive theology that comes out of a liberal theological tradition. I come out of a very conservative theological tradition, and it is out of my embrace of a whole reading of Scripture, out of my dedication to seeing the whole work of God, out of my absolute faith in the continuing, active work of the Spirit that I see these elements as being more reflective of a deep devotion to the testimony of Scripture and the revelation of God than older forms of church.

These are elements that, I argue, can arise out of an increased devotion to Christ and a maturity in the Spirit. That’s an argument for emerging church expressions that engages more attention to traditional theology and Scripture than even Evangelical churches do.

And these arguments are needed, because the expressions of the emerging church are sociological as much as they are theological.

We are, like it or not, no longer in modernity. We are past modernity, post modern, and how this works itself out is not fully determined. But it is reality. If people who argue against liberal expressions of theology or Continental expressions of postmodern theology think they can simply wait out emerging forms of church (whatever they are or are not called) they are very mistaken.

These are the realities of what we face, and they are, oddly enough, the realities that were celebrated in the earliest forms of church, whether that be in the book of Acts, or the church of Carthage in late 2nd century, or in the monastic reforms of the middle ages, or in the Quaker movement that came out of the Puritans in the 17th century, or in the small groups of the Methodists. This is an impulse that is common throughout church history, and which now has a widened freedom because of mass communication and the lack of authoritarian controls to stop the spread of non-affiliated, non-hierarchical communities of people seeking Christ and His Kingdom.

I agree with Bill Dahl, who writes:

The decline of the emerging church? I don’t see it. On the contrary, I continue to celebrate “the green tips growing out on many of the fragile branches of the ancient tree of faith and spirituality that has been growing throughout history.”

If people abandon contributing, they are abandoning a widely expressed movement to the very particular expressions of theology with which they disagree. There is no inherent connection between emerging church impulses and progressive forms of post-liberal theology.

Not yet, anyway.

Not unless we abandon this ship, abandon the forest to those who cut it down from all kinds of various motives. This means finding common ground with those we share common goals with. Even as this means offering constructive arguments and humble contributions when we find details with which we disagree. There can be many streams into the goals and ideals that are at the heart of emerging churches. Rather than devolve the discussion back into accusations and rejections, let us try something different, something different than so many generations of the church have done. Let us trust the Spirit of God. Let us show real faith. Let us contribute constructive thoughts so that if what we believe is true, we will see it in fruition and communion. We see the Pentecostal churches contribution not because they overcame some divisive argument about Montanism or Barth’s opinion on tongues. Rather, they did what they felt called to do in those early eras, and they resonated broadly, all across the world. That’s the power of God at work in a wonderful way.

But Pentecostals do not have the full picture, I think. Many can point out their mistakes as well. Rather than condemn, let us listen and learn. Let us listen and learn from the other streams as well, some of which may seem offensive. We can and certainly should offer constructive critiques in return, but not in a divisive way, abandoning brothers and sisters who likewise call Jesus Lord, simply because we see a hint of some echo of some perceived heresy.

We are called to unity in the Spirit, not because this is easy, but because there is at the heart of the Spirit’s work a great diversity of thought and expression that leads people from all kinds of emphases and perspectives into the common service of Christ.

We can and should offer alternative contributions to some key issues, not least because I think so many of the issues discussed are not central to the core emerging church ideals. This doesn’t mean the emerging church is broken. It means there is much more to be discussed, much more conversation to be had. If this leads only certain opinions at the table, then that’s sad for all involved.

I have yet to hear any arguments made that convince me that the core elements of the emerging church drive are outside the bounds of the Spirit’s work. And I have yet to hear any arguments to even come close to suggesting there will be a return to an understanding of church participation as it existed pre-20th century. Because of this, I know that the core expressions of what are now called emerging churches will continue to be with us. The only question is which people will lay claim to what are almost certainly holistic expressions of God’s continuing work in this world. My prayer is that people from all sorts of backgrounds will be a part of this developing emerging theology.

I know that this is part of my goals. I’d love to have more and more people who likewise come with shared theological interests stay around and keep me company. It might get very lonely otherwise. But, I’ll still keep at it even still.

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