I attended a dialog on the emergent church Wednesday afternoon at Wheaton College (January 20). Authors Dan Kimball (photo at left) and Skye Jethani (photo at right) made presentations (Dan’s was given the evening before) and answered questions. The event was hosted by Dr. Vince Bacote and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. I tried to restrain myself but ended up making several comments at the end of the hour-plus meeting. I likely said more than I should have, given the time constraints. (Time flies when you are thinking, listening, reacting in your mind and wanting to speak while sensing you should say something or maybe you shouldn’t.) I find such events encouraging and just a tad frustrating. The encouraging part is that these two guys were humble, gracious and insightful. I loved listening to them both. The frustrating part is that a lot has to get simplified and they made sweeping generalizations. I understand that these are necessary but, in the process, they are frustrating to me as an author and speaker. I could have talked to these two guys for hours. (I did speak to them both afterward and they were as gracious in person as in speaking, an all too rare occurrence! I had met Dan previously but not Skye, yet Skye lives locally.) They are both articulate and they both clearly love the church and missional and theological ideas, an all too rare combination.
Skye Jethani showed that “emergent” Christianity consisted of seven layers or categories of process or development. Writers who confuse these layers, or do not make these distinctions, lump everything that they read, see or hear about emergent into one large soup. Some reject this soup as postmodern and dangerous and then the label gets kicked around and around and becomes a new “bomb” Christians throw at one another. (One or two major Christian figures have called me “emergent,” a label that is downright ludicrous if it wasn’t so humorous.) The result is that this term may now have little or no meaning, if it ever had much real meaning to begin with. Skye pointed out how much marketing had to do with the use of the term and just how much publishers drove this in order to sell to the 21-35 year-old segment of evangelicalism. I know this to be true from first-hand experience. This whole debate about emergent people and emergent ideas is more about marketing than about really “new” ideas. I do not deny that there is such a thing as emergent Christians or emergent churches but I do not think emergent reality is as ubiquitous as many advocates and critics think. As a historian I am guessing, at least for now, that this will hardly be a serious footnote in American church history fifty years from now.
What is happening is various types and strands of evangelicalism are blending and converging in various ways. Skye brought this ought very effectively in his presentation. He showed that churches where liturgy would never have been a part of the mix are now more liturgical whereas churches that embrace the gospel of personal salvation are now also embracing a more aggressive and defined social message. Some are redefining the way they understand the gospel, especially the doctrine of the atonement. (This movement is where the levels and layers become more important and doctrinally significant to the health of the church.) Through all of this simplistic definitions of evangelical Christianity (whatever it really is) are getting challenged.
I think the real challenge to popular evangelicalism, or post-war revivalism, began many years before anything called emergent came on the scene. If any single American evangelical thinker and writer fostered this “redefining” and mixing process it was my friend Bob Webber. In 2002, when his book The Younger Evangelicals (Baker) appeared, the late Bob Webber was asked:
If I am a leader of pragmatic evangelical church who came from a pragmatic evangelical seminary who is now faced with what appears to be a very incompatible world, what advice [do you have] for me? Where do I turn next?
I think you have to look at this issue from an immediate and then a long-term perspective. The pragmatic churches have become institutionalized – with some exceptions. They responded to the sixties and seventies, created a culture-driven church and don’t get that the world has changed again. Pragmatics, being fixed, have little room for those who are shaped by the postmodern revolution. A clash is emerging. The younger evangelicals will not have a voice in the pragmatic, fixed mentality. Stay there and your spirit will die (there are some exceptions, pray for discernment). Many pragmatic churches, like old shopping malls are dying. Very few people under 30 are in pragmatic churches. The handwriting is on the wall. Leave. Do a start up church. Be a tent-maker. Build communities. Small groups or neighborhood churches. Be willing to let your life die for Jesus as you break with the market driven, culture shaped, numbers oriented, Wall-Mart-something-for-everyone church. Be an Abraham and take a risk. God will show up and lead the way.
It is this kind of answer that drove all kinds of young people to respect Bob and to listen to him and read him. His message was nuanced, theological and always practical. He was, dare I use the word, “prophetic,” at least for many evangelicals. He introduced them to ancient-future thinking and was way ahead of the curve on most of this “emerging” stuff, maybe even helping to create the curve if a history of this development is written in the future. Bob was nervous about some aspects of the emergent movement, as I am. He also embraced the movement as an indication of a change that was needed in the mission of the church.
I suspect that Jethani and Kimball are correct when they suggest that the term emergent is becoming irrelevant and that it was more a term for publishers to use to market
books and conferences than it was a real, lasting and important moment in the life of the church.
What I am convinced of is that something much bigger than a label or a movement is really happening. Christians of all backgrounds, including Catholics and mainline Protestants, are “emerging” into something that will be very different from the “pragmatic” version of revivalism that their fathers and mothers embraced. And new converts will enter the church through many different forms of church expression and models of evangelism. And many lapsed Christians—both Catholics and Protestants (and maybe some Orthodox)—may still “come home” as the very effective television ads put it. I welcome any movement back to Christ and to his church. I welcome the return, as well as the first time seekers, especially in the under 35 generation. I believe there is hope in this trickle of movement to the faith and I am convinced that the message of missional-ecumenism, the message I promote in my forthcoming book, Your Church Is Too Small, is big enough to attract large numbers of these younger Christians and leaders to a new/old understanding of how we can be one and more effectively present the love of Christ to a dying world. I stand on the shoulders of my friend Bob Webber. I believe he would endorse my book if he was still here. I also believe he would be rooting for people to add this Christ-centered, mission-centered, kingdom-centered vision to their experience of Christ and the church and thus continue the journey to an ancient-future faith experience.