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Julie Clawson, someone I have deep respect for, has asked some of us this morning to comment on the question of: “What is emerging?” I am surprised to be asked to contribute, and I feel somewhat ill-equipped to add my two-cents worth (something that rarely stops me). As a person who has limned the boarders of what some consider an untouchable caste called the hyphen-mergents I have watched the emergent dialogue with much hope and a certain amount of despair. There are certain things to both laud and recoil from in its brief history. Yet, personally I mostly centered around the joy and love for the people who are emergent that I know to be real witnesses to the hope that I have in Christ.
I think that I will limit my criticism to: 1. A lack of accountability because of a mistaken idea of power 2. It’s evangelical roots. 3. Its inhospitality toward those inside of denominational structures 4. The illusion of flattened structures representing democratic voices. The four things I have chosen to laud are: 1. Its post-denominational emphasis. 2. Its love ethic. 3. It’s belief in action and relationship over creed. 4. Its recovery of Spiritual practices marginalized and forgotten by Protestants.
1. A lack of accountability because of a mistaken idea of Power – From the outset let me state that I consider myself a hyper-democrat when it comes to the church. I consider myself a Christian Anarchist. Yet, I do find it helpful to have real understandings of power and how they relate to movements. Often when criticism of Emergent groups is taken on there is a denial that there is any organization, any structure or there is no leader. Yet, there are both powerful individuals and organizations that have vied for the dominant voice in this movement. When these entities talk or are the guest of a conference their voice is held with greater weight than others. I know this may not be the intention, but it is the reality. I think it is disingenuous to say that EV or any other emergent entity has no responsibility for the things that their founders or most powerful players do and say. Otherwise, this presupposes that anyone, if they just used their voice, would have an equal say in the future. I think this really is the struggle between believing in something that is passively organic or actively intentional. I will say that even though this criticism may seem harsh, I believe that many emergents with less power desire this to be a much more democratic movement.
2. Its Evangelical roots—Many of us left the Evangelical/fundamentalist (I do not believe they are different) church and do not intend to go back. We find the word evangelical to be irredeemable with the content of the faith that we now have. So, when we feel that part of a movement is taking us backwards on women in the ministry, the full acceptance of homosexuality, the use of apologetical language against those of us who have found a home in denominationalism and a lack of accountability we blanch. There are clear antecedents in recent American church history that come directly from Evangelicalism into the emergent movement that many of us have left. If we are asked to return to the midst of groups that we have found damaging to our faith it will be difficult for us to remain. I believe that many inside the emergent movement do not realize how much they are depending upon American evangelical culture (not necessarily theology). There must be a clear understanding of our real fear of being co opted back into evangelicalism.
3. Its inhospitality to those still inside denominational structures—This has been one that I believe goes along with the last point. For many years the evangelical church taught their evangelists to witness Jesus Christ to those who are lost in the liberal, denominational structures. I believe that this is the real reason that there is an anti-clerical, anti-denominational bias that sometimes raises its head in this movement. I am a pastor of a post-denominational church, but have for the moment chosen to stay within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) structure. I have heard very ugly things said about my denomination within this movement, some which showed an ignorance of our structure. This is completely unacceptable behavior. In my mind the Emergent movement needs the hyphen-mergents and sympathetic outsiders much more than these people need the Emergent movement. We have a place that have proven disciplines, much more diversity with intergenerational contact, inclusive talk about gender inequality, an already proven social justice record, care for the poor (that many emergents now find valuable) and deep spiritual practices (that many emergents like to use without valuing their source). There must be a turn in the movement away from anti-clerical thought and anti-denominational sentiment.
4. The illusion that passively flattened structures represents a democratic voice—This is one that has been batted around before by more intelligent people than me. I work with a few inner city African American congregations in the Metro D.C area. I can almost guarantee that they would not find compelling the argument that the avenues are open for their voice if they would just take advantage of them. It is sort of blaming those without full access, denial of understanding or limited access to power. I have been encouraged by the boot camp ideas that have tried to educate those who do not understand or have access. I am also excited about the upcoming event in Atlanta in November. Yet, this diversity of voices will not be brought into any discussion without invitation, nurturing, encouragement and repentance.
Now that I have laid out a few of the criticisms I would like to get to where I find hope and sustenance within emergent.
1. Its post-denominational emphasis—Wait a second! Isn’t that what you criticized the movement for before? Yes, but that was for the lack of ecumenical acceptance for people who have stayed within the denominational walls. I do think that our church is thankfully moving toward a much more post-denominational future. This is a place where the emergent movement has the most opportunity to forge lasting and important changes in the American spiritual landscape. There is so little that separates us on our spiritual beliefs, but we have so many points of demarcation when it comes to creeds, theology and structure. This can be a powerful witness to the future groups of Christ followers.
2. Its love ethic—Rarely do I encounter people who like to talk as much as the emergents in my life. This means that there is an increasing amount of opportunity for misunderstandings, fights and resentments. I have found that there is much more of a willingness to forgive, try to understand and ask for forgiveness than I have experienced in any other movement. There is a willingness in some quarters to learn, change and move forward in new directions. I think this is all centered around the emphasis for love. Even when there are enemies attacking, there are some inside the movement that are compelled to more love than I would ever show. If there can always be an emphasis on unity through love it will always better serve the movement.
3. A belief in action and relationship over creed—This is one that I have particularly appreciated. It is the continual challenge of getting out of our heads and doing something good to the least of these. Sometimes when I feel that I can no longer take hearing about post-modern philosophies, post-structuralism and missionalism I am reminded that the very essence of what many of my emergent friends are doing is action. They are going out and doing something as opposed to apathetically sitting in a pew and complaining. It is often not what is printed on blogs, on webpages or on a twitter stream that represent the greatest testimony to what is emergent. It is the things that are done for others in love that are not seen. This is the truly transformational character of a movement.
4. Its recovery of spiritual practices marginalized and forgotten by Protestants—For many of us who have followed the wider church’s cultural shift back to liturgical practices the emergent movements brave explorations into different spiritualities has been a breath of fresh air. Since it is primarily outside of the denominational or sacramental structures in which these practices originated it has given them new breath, as well as, allowed innovations. This, to me, has opened up liturgy (the worship of the people), given freedom for innovation and let diversity of worship forms find acceptance. This is very important to me, because I think that when we get down to it we are all participating in similar struggles, fears, resentments, angers, joys, celebrations and hope. The deepening of spiritual practice gives us the opportunity to be ecumenically bound in prayer and concern for each other in endlessly creative ways.
In the midst of these I truly felt inadequate to offer criticism or praise. I don’t know if I am emergent or not, I know that some of my critics have labeled me this. Yet, I hold to the old saying by Jean Cocteau “Respect movements, ignore institutions.” I respect the movement tremendously and pray that it changes our cultures into much more loving and giving people. In my criticisms I hope to be proven wrong and in my praise I hope to be affirmed. With much love and respect.
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