Shekinah Glory

What is Emergent?
April 19, 2010, 3:24 pm
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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.


28 Comments so far
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Thank you Brian. As someone who came from evangelicalism to emergent and then to a mainline denomination, I find your critiques and praise to be true to my experience. I might add that it is not only spiritual practices but also theological constructs that are taken without honoring the sources in traditions.

But I remain supportive and deeply thankful for emergent in it’s many forms.

Comment by Jenny Warner

You have hit on a point that causes great resentment that is sometimes not named. Liberationists and many mainline social justice theologians have pointed out many of the ideas of “Big” emergents decades and sometimes centuries ago. Often emergents coop these ideas as new and their own. That is why it is difficult to hear some of the negative characterizations of mainliners by those in the movement. I deeply value your views and wish your family was much closer.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

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Good thoughts, and some valid criticisms. I did grow up in the evangelical world, and for better or worse still keep a foot (often just a toe) in that world. It’s been a struggle for me to continue to welcome even those who I seriously disagree with into this conversation. I just have to remind myself that if there hadn’t been room for me as a questioning conservative evangelical in this conversation, I could never have found the space to travel to where I am at now. The tough balance is keeping that ethic of love present for say the women or homosexuals in the conversation while at the same time not excluding those who think differently than me. But, you’re right, we do depend far to much upon this cultural structure – we play by their rules, use their publishing systems, and do church in similar ways. While those things are bad in and of themselves, to assume that they are an integral part of what it means to be Christian can be dangerous.

I’m curious how you would suggest “leaders” in the emerging church use their power. If they get mocked and crucified for claiming they have power, what freedom do they have to affect change? As an organic gardener, I know that in truth for life to actually grow it has to be anything but passive. There has to be deliberate listening and invitations to begin to hear from the other. But at the same time to ask that of the emerging church is like pointing the finger and asking the same of the Feminist movement or the hip-hop movement. While there are prominent voices in each of those movements, there is no one person or committee who holds enough control to change the direction of the entire movement. Certain voices can use their influence to change things, but unlike in a business or military, no one person can take the credit or blame for the direction of the whole. Should such movements therefore not exist? Or Should they be forced into an hierarchical structure that can be shaped? Are there solutions that can even work within what already is?

Comment by Julie Clawson


I hope that I can give you as thoughtful a response as your comment.

Your second point first. They may get mocked and crucified, but I hope not by me. My criticism is that there are already multiple hierarchical structures that exist throughout the emergent world. Some of the para-church organizations from Leadership Magazine who met with the youth worker men in the beginning had power and money. Zondervan is a powerful and lucrative publishing house. Baker books is a profitable publishing house. Harper One is a powerful and lucrative publishing house. Beliefnet is a powerful aggregator. Tony Jones, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle command greater audiences than many of us do every week. What I hear most often is a denial that power or structure exists. I am not against intentionally working to democratize a structure if one is honest about its gatekeepers and the power that they hold. Many of the conversations around power in emergent conversations I find to be just outright denials of reality. There are people who have a voice and some people who have a VOICE. I think that more of my criticism is that the movement wants to stand in denial that there are people or groups that exerts a greater influence upon where emergent goes or who gets heard.

If what you are saying is correct then the movement has serious issues for its future. Where there is a vacuum someone will find great opportunity. If there is no strong leadership and it is true that there is a power vacuum that could be potentially more frightening for the movement’s future. Will the Evangelical church, who has tons of power and money, coop large parts of emergent church into its agenda? Will this make it easier for the more conservative elements who despise emergent to merely wear down good people with unlimited money and power? I am not suggesting that the movement shouldn’t exist at all, but that it be realistic about the dangers of having too idealistic a view of power. Instead of saying that no one can take responsibility because there is no center, emergent should begin looking at the centers that already exists, always challenging and broadening them. I think your final question is the one that is the most important and insightful. Is the structure already too far in place for change and is it too fragmented to form an integrated movement around? That is something worth pondering, no answer here yet.

btw I think theological feminists have been very critical of some of the self reflection of power that emergents have taken. Some have voiced them quite clearly, I think you have been one;-)

To your first point. There are clear streams from evangelicalism that have moved into the emergent conversation. The term missional itself is centered around a particular evangelical missiology. The issue isn’t whether evangelicals are included, the issue is whether the rest of us will be asked to ignore what we painfully had to leave behind to once again feel silenced so evangelicals will feel comfortable? I am strongly ecumenically committed when it comes to the inclusion of my evangelical friends, but they know that I will not bend my conscious for that dialog. Yet, I am always willing to sit with people of good faith, but they need to be prepared to feel as uncomfortable in my presence as I do in theirs. Open dialog does not mean that one group remains silent so that others feel comfortable. If they are not comfortable being around women leaders, people of different classes, interracial ministry, intergenerational contact, or sexual minorities and leave the conversation, then it wasn’t much of a conversation to begin with.

Sorry this is so long. Just wanted to give you a semi-intelligent response.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Great point on how evangelicals need to feel uncomfortable too. What I’ve sadly found too often is that they feel uncomfortable, run away, and then blame us for kicking them out. I just want to shake some of them and say “you left because you couldn’t handle not being in control.” It makes for awkward conversation.

And yes, it is really hard to move forward when you have a group of people who have been socialized to resist the trappings of power even when it is thrust upon them. When all they ever are is criticized for capitalizing on the power and fame of the EC, they do everything they can to resist that. To assume that power and start telling people how the EC needs to act goes against everything they believe. I’ve hit this wall over and over again in trying to advance women’s voices in this conversation. There are no bad guys keeping us out, but also no one who can hand us the keys. I had to learn to organically champion the voices I knew and suggest others do so as well. Like you said, it takes people willing to own their voice and use it for others which is difficult when they are condition to resist that very thing.

Comment by Julie Clawson

I just wanted to say that I really think you are spot on with your assessment of what happens when Evangelicals take their toys and go home. Blaming for being shut out goes along with that apologetics. A good defense is a good offense. Thanks again for all the great conversation. I hope I can get some time to read some more of the posts today.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

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Good points and good conversation Brian. I don’t have much else to add to what my wife has already said, except to encourage you (and Carol – I know this has been a big point of tension for her as well) not to judge all emergents by the more vocally anti-denominational types among us. While you’re right that some folks (Tony, Doug, etc.) have a louder voice than others, that still doesn’t mean they speak for all of us on those issues. The whole point of the emerging conversation, IMHO, is just that… that it’s a conversation. People can say shit and there’s no obligation or expectation that anyone else has to agree with them. Folks who are deeply skeptical of the value of denominational structures can coexist and be in conversation with folks like yourselves who still see the value in them. I would want to silence either of your voices or tell either of you to stop sharing your opinions and experiences. Just because I personally happen to agree with you and Carol on this, doesn’t mean I think we should shut down those who are more anti-institutional, any more than I think the anti-IC folks should be able to shut down those of us who still see the value in institutional Christianity. Like you said, “Open dialog does not mean that one group remains silent so that others feel comfortable.” It’s about the conversation, not about agreement!

Comment by Mike Clawson

Thanks for the comment. I truly agree with you that for the most part it is about the conversation. Although my experience is that some of the people with a VOICE are not as interested in conversation as in declaration, then argumentation. I think that it would be unwise to believe that it will only remain on that level and not at some point become institutionalize or peter out. History works against movements being self sustaining revolutions. I do appreciate the conversational nature of emergent. There are however those who make their hay on attacking (not conversation). Some of whom my presbytery has given great amounts of money to and then they castigate our denomination. One whom I handed out pamphlets at GA for whom during GA condemned GA nationally. Then the same person said that we were sinners if we told a friend to work through the ordination system. BTW I was not one encouraging the person to stay in the system. These are not conversations, and they are turning people away from emergent dialog. I don’t have a problem with those who want to talk about the emerging post-denominational church, I am one. I am working on setting up a national policy allowing ministers to come into the International Council of Community Churches movement to be validated as a post-denominational ministers. I have a problem with people that are building the movement and their reputation around attacking others. This is not dialogue and quite frankly emergents can’t afford to alienate their friends.

Yet, aside from mine and many others personal experiences. I do think that the majority of people, on the ground, want this to remain an open dialog. That is why it keeps my attention. I have so many people whom I want to lead me in the 21st century, most whom are not part of the VOICES. Maybe it is time to overthrow the VOICES 🙂

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Damn typo! I meant to say “I wouldn’t want to silence either of your voices or tell either of you to stop sharing your opinions and experiences.”

Comment by Mike Clawson

I figured it out 🙂

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Carol pointed out another typo that I had this morning.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Our site is The dates for the upcoming one are May 24-26 at Meadowkirk in Northern Virginia (near Dulles). We have about 30 people signed up to get together right now to talk, eat and worship together. We got a grant from National Capital Presbytery as well. We have tried to scholarship as many people as possible, but we might be getting close moneywise (at least that is what Carol keeps warning me :-))

Comment by pastorofdisaster

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thanks much, Brian for your thoughtfulness!

Comment by godpots

Thanks. You always have insightful things to say. I appreciate your voice.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

You know Brian. It really sounds to me like your main problem is just with that one person (and yes, I know who and what you are referring to). May I suggest just not listening to that person so much? If you want a voice in the EC that is supportive of denoms, why not listen to Brian McLaren or Diana Butler Bass or Phyllis Tickle instead? All of them have very positive things to say about institutional structures while also offering some constructive critique as well.

As for overthrowing the VOICES, I’m not so sure about that. Isn’t your wife one of the VOICES? Last time I checked she was still a pretty big deal in Presbyterian/mainline circles. 😉

Comment by Mike Clawson

Well it really isn’t just with Tony, but he influences a great amount of people in his sphere. Those are the most remarkable instances. Yet, to say that his voice isn’t a major one and influencing a great amount of people’s opinions is wrong. My point is that alienating those whom limn the boarders of EC will make them leave. They don’t need it.

I have tried many times to overthrow Carol’s voice, but she has much too much power. She could squash me like a bug 🙂 I do appreciate those other voices as well. Diana has really gone to bat for me lately.

On another note altogether know that I would personally love for ya’ll to be at unconference. If not this one, the next one for sure. I’m trying to get APTS to much more present in these sort of discussions. You can imagine the resistance. Yet, I will keep pushing them forward.

Comment by pastorofdisaster

Oh yeah, I never said Tony didn’t have a major voice and a lot of influence, and I too get very frustrated at times by the number of people he (and Doug too) manage to offend and drive away from the conversation because of their shock-jock speaking styles. Those of us who know them on a personal level tend to just roll our eyes and know that that’s just them, but it’s more problematic when others don’t know them as well and especially when they take what those guys say as somehow representative of all of us in the EC. Tony and Doug would never ever claim that for themselves, and have explicitly denied it more times than I can recall, and yet outside observers and folks on the margins still seem to have a deep-seated need for someone to be the singular spokesperson for all things emergent. Like you’ve said, that’s probably inevitable, but it’s also unfortunate since those of us within the conversation don’t think of them that way and they don’t think of themselves that way either.

So when and where is this unconference? And do y’all have a website for it? I’ve heard a few things about it (mainly from Carol and Ryan) but I haven’t seen any of the details yet.

Comment by Mike Clawson

[…] Brian Merritt offers both criticisms and hopes: 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. … […]

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