A humorous, but accurate, description of Emergent Christians…

Here’s a humorous, but mostly accurate, description of “You might be emergent if…”  It’s from Kevin and Ted Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent (Moody, 2008). I have already said in other places that their book is my favorite anti-Emergent book, written without aggressive name-calling. My conclusions are different than theirs, because we come from different branches of theology on the family tree. But this description is classic. This is the first part, I’ll put up part two later this week.

“You might be an emergent Christian: if you listen to U2, Moby, and Johnny Cash’s Hurt (sometimes in church), use sermon illustrations from The Sopranos, drink lattes in the afternoon and Guinness in the evenings, and always use a Mac; if your reading list consists primarily of Stanley Hauerwas, Henri Nouwen, N.T. Wright, Stan Grenz, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Jim Wallis, Frederick Buechner, David Bosch, John Howard Yoder, Wendell Berry, Nancy Murphy, John Franke, Walter Winks and Lesslie Newbigin (not to mention McLaren, Pagitt, Bell, etc.) and your sparring partners include D. A. Carson, John Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Wayne Grudem; if your idea of quintessential Christian discipleship is Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu; if you don’t like George W. Bush or institutions of big business or capitalism or Left Behind Christianity; if your political concerns are poverty, AIDS, imperialism, war-mongering, CEO salaries, consumerism, global warming, racism, and oppression and not so much abortion and gay marriage; if you are into bohemian, goth, rave or indie; if you talk about the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of certainty; if you lie awake at night having nightmares about all the ways modernism has ruined your life; if you love the Bible as a beautiful, inspiring collection of works that lead us into the mystery of God but is not inerrant; if you search for truth but aren’t sure it can be found; if you’ve ever been to a church with prayer labyrinths, candles, Play-Doh, chalk-drawings, couches, or beanbags (your youth group doesn’t count); if you loath words like linear, propositional, rational, machine and hierarchy and use words like ancient-future, jazz, mosaic, matrix, missional, vintage and dance…”

My favorite anti-Emergent book

As someone from the Wesleyan stream of Christianity, I find many things that strike me as very good in the Emergent movement. (I drew this conclusion after reading 50 of the primary books by Emergent authors and visiting some of their churches during a Sabbatical a few years ago). I find that most of the books written against them are ridiculously inaccurate and poorly researched, and thus – according the criteria attributed to Martin Luther – unChristian in their lack of accuracy.

A bright exception to the vitriol, gruff talk, and bizarre conspiracy theories pointed at the Emergent/Emerging Christians, is Dan Kluck and Kevin DeYoung’s book Why We’re Not Emergent (2008). Kluck and DeYoung have written a kind, humorous, and good-natured argument regarding Emergent things they are concerned about. They have not vilified the Emergent church, and they have written in a Christlike voice, pointing out that the Emergent Christians are not the enemy. I hold them in the highest esteem for this. Since they come from a committed Reformed perspective, and I live in the Arminian stream, many of their concerns don’t’ fit for me. However, despite disagreeing with some of their conclusions, I deeply appreciate, and celebrate, the spirit in which they write. I wish more people wrote in the spirit and tone of voice that these good men have. Their book also points out and celebrates well the faithful ways the modern church has lived out the gospel.

I have a good memory associated with that book. I read the book a few years ago cover to cover while following a group of junior high girls around Hershey Park for my daughter’s birthday. They rode roller coasters, I stood and read. They giggled and laughed and had junior high girl fun while I bought prodigious amounts of lemonade and followed along 10 yards behind reading while I walked. Amazingly, I never ran into a single person in the park during that crowded day. That daughter turned 18 the other day and she is, of course, precious to me.

Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.

How I would characterize the Emergents

Plenty of fine books written by young emergent Christians have explained their perspectives. These books don’t get read much by their detractors, especially the ones just passing along what they heard someone else say. In fact, most Christians I know who are bad-mouthing the emergents have never read any book by an emergent author, and are simply passing along information they’ve gleaned from websites or books antagonistic to the movement. This even includes pastor friends of mine!

When I wrote about the ‘Mesa’ group’s ten commitments, someone asked if I’d say it was just the New Age movement re-packaged? (Part of my response was: “Mesa, as far as I know, are practicing Christians and understand their entire reason to exist as Gospel-driven and Kingdom-purposed. God’s will being done on earth, loving enemies, serving the poor, justice, care in how Scripture is used, churches, Christlike people, the common good, racial harmony, being good stewards of Creation, peacemaking and our relationship with God – all sound like Bible to me!”)

But the question got me thinking, how would I characterize the Emergents? Anytime you try to paint a picture of a large, diverse group, you step into a minefield of mis-characterization. However, I will simply do this:

I will describe the most common ‘type’ (using the word in the way ethnographers do) of Emergent Christian that I have personally known and talked to. So here it is:

Primarily young. Grew up in evangelical church. Believes Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Thinks the evangelical church sold out to upper middle class Republican values. Thinks the evangelical church confuses being Republican so badly with following Jesus that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Feels that the evangelical church functions largely as a religious grocery store servicing its members while ignoring the pressing needs of the world’s poor and injustices and needs a healthy dose of Matthew 25. Longs for a sense of Christian community they didn’t find in the church they grew up attending. Wants to follow Jesus and do the things he said to do in the Gospels. Isn’t nearly as taken with Paul’s theological explication of Jesus as they are with Jesus himself.  Thinks their parents’ churches are often long on doctrines about Jesus and short on actually following him in the sense of doing what he said. Wants to actually live among the poor and minister to them. Values all kinds of expressions of Christianity across the spectrum of denominations more than just settling into one.  Are often antagonistic toward 5 point Calvinism (though not all of them). Values community more than individuality. Yes, they are democrat. Yes, they are often politically liberal. Yes, like most of their generation, many of them see homosexuality as just how people are born. Their most over-powering goal in life is to live out the Gospel as Kingdom of God followers of Jesus.

These are the characteristics of most Emergent Christians I know.

The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.

Theological Immediacy Syndrome

I think those who decry current theological work suffer from a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without an awareness of how we got our theology, and what that means for the on-going ways theology will develop in our lifetime and well beyond.  I mean by this that they imagine that their theology is a once-for-all-time message that needs protected for theological purity; a beleaguered set of doctrines that has been attacked throughout the centuries and has been successfully defended and still must be. Or, in the case of some of our New Calvinism friends, they imagine Christian theology was one certain accumulation of doctrines that was somehow lost in the early days of the church, re-surfaced when John Calvin came along in France, and now must be protected for all time, the one true expression of The Faith; and if you aren’t sure what it is, just keep your John MacArthur and John Piper books handy.

This, of course, suffers from the fact that it is simply historically untrue. All of our theologies have been through numerous revisions. All Christian theology, including Calvin’s, have accumulated, morphed, jettisoned, adjusted, re-vised and edited themselves over and over again. When people, like the emergents, start writing new directions in theology, they are simply repeating a process that has been going on for 20 centuries.  (And one that we know, from the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, was going on in Judaism during Jesus’ time as well).  Friends of mine who de-cry the emergent/postmodern Christians seem to imagine that whatever they write today might de-rail the Christian faith for all time. I think of that as a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without a long view of history. What the historical process shows us is that, rather than crying heretic! every time somebody tries to do some work, if we sit back and let the pot simmer on the stove, it allows for the on-going work of Christian theology to develop, just like it always has. It takes a while for new iterations of Christian theology and practice to work its way out. We don’t need to rush it or stress.

The Shift to Postmodern Christianity

Down through the centuries, Christianity has been very good at adapting to various changes and shifts in worldview and culture. At the hinge-era of what we usually call the modern/post-modern area, we are in the sometimes volatile thinking-phase of this adaption.

Eddie Bibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their extensive examination of emerging churches have written:

“Because of this essential dismantling work, some outside the (emergent/emerging) movement have said that those in emerging churches do not love the church or that they are full of negativity because of their propensity for dismantling church structures. This is to misread the movement entirely. What to some may appear to be pointless complaining is a part of a larger process of dismantling ideas of church that simply are not viable in postmodern culture. Neither the gospel nor the culture demands these expressions of the faith. Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-first-century Western culture…” (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 28-29)

George Hunter III has said, more than once, that many churches are poised to be effective if 1952 ever rolls around again. Surely we don’t want North American Christianity in the 21st Century to end up having been “islands filled with modernist Christians while surrounded by a sea of postmodern people”, do we?  I am indebted to Dustin Metcalf (Akkerman, Oord & Peterson, Postmodern and Wesleyan? 63) for this picturesque image.