A Weekend Emergent Village Experience

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

This weekend’s Midwest Emergent Gathering, held July 20-21 in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was an event that I enjoyed participating in immensely. I was invited, by my friend Mike Clawson of up/rooted (Chicago), to answer several questions in a plenary session. I was billed as a friendly “outsider.” We laughed about this designation since many of my critics now assume that I am a “heretical insider” to Emergent. The truth is that neither is totally true. I am not so much a part of this movement, at least not in any recognizable or formal way, as I am a real friend of all things missional that sincerely address the basic questions that I feel very strongly must be faced by Christians within Western culture.

It is a basic fact that the church regularly reduces the gospel, to something less or other than than the gospel, in its various attempts to translate the good news into a faithful witness within any culture. This is true in Asia, Latin America and Africa as well. (Witness the cover story of the current Christianity Today on the impact of the prosperity gospel in Africa, where the greatest church growth is also taking place.) This does not mean the church is no longer the church. It does mean reformation is always necessary, thus the faithful church must be semper reformanda, always reforming. This realization grows out of a sober view of the humanity of the church. (The church is a divine organism with the life of Christ in it but it is also very human at the same time.) But many conservative Christians, especially if they are over forty, tend to think serious criticism of the church, or questioning the ways Christians think and believe (epistemology), is tantamount to arrogance and undermining the faith itself. Because I want to open a wide discussion of epistemology (i.e., the ways that we know what is true and not true) I am routinely questioned about whether I still believe in truth at all. When I say that I clearly and strongly do believe in the truth then I am then called a liar, or given some similar flattering insightful response.

I am reminded at this point of Paul’s response to the Corinthians in the first century. He thanked God for their witness, and never doubted that they were real Christians in a very real church, while he also developed an epistolary response around a series of problems. All of these various problems threatened the living witness of the church itself but Paul doesn’t treat these church people as enemies. There is a narrow path to be carefully navigated here. both Emergents and non-Emergents can both miss it. We must love the church enough to affirm that where Christ is named and witness to him is maintained the church is God’s household, even if it is in dire straights. On the other hand, churches that prosper numerically and financially in the present context tend to think there is no criticism needed for them since they are knowing success first-hand. (I find few listeners to my concerns in such settings, very few.) I am reminded of theologian Douglas John Hall’s statement that the way Western Christians have told their story, since the time of Constantine, is primarily as a “success story.” With Emergents I think it is time we stop telling our story in this way and find ways that are faithful to the cross.

This Midwest Emergent Gathering featured well-known speakers and authors such as Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Denise Van Eck, Will Samson, Spencer Burke and even the friendly e-Bay atheist, Hemant Mehta, who has written a book every Christian should read: I Sold My Soul on e-Bay. If you want to understand how non-believers really “see” the church check him out. I was particularly pleased to share lunch with Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, both from Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. Two more delightful brothers I have not met recently. Yes, these men are subversive for sure, but then so was Jesus. They raise lots of questions that are disturbing, and maybe at times they overstate themselves a bit, which I rather like much of the time. But they are not professional hucksters for a new fad at all. They clearly love the gospel, love people, and care profoundly about the mission of Christ.

Tony Jones, the national coordinator of Emergent Village, shared considerable private discussion time with me. I discovered in him a wide range of insight, a warm heart for Christ and his kingdom, and a true honest-to-goodness disciple-learner. He is a doctoral fellow and senior research fellow in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and has a very good mind for things related to both mission and theology. He is the author of the excellent book, The Sacred Way. Doug Pagitt, the pastor of Solomon’s Porch, which is a missional and holistic community in Minneapolis, has a quick wit, an engaging style of speaking and a deep love for real ministry in a unique place in the urban community. He is the author of Church Re-Imagined, Preaching Re-Imagined and Body Prayer. If you only know these men from these books you will only know their ideas, or at least the way they’ve written some of those ideas for church-wide discussion. In person, you will soon discover that they are not “rock stars” or interested in any kind of self-promotion. For a product of the boomer generation like me I smell this “self-promotion” stuff (and the phony piety that often attends it) miles away. Thus I was delighted to see that these brothers are what you really see and hear. They treated me with Christian respect and a genuine interest to get to know me, again a rare commodity in the world that I have moved in for past thirty-five years.

There are several books you could get into if you really wanted to learn more. Go to Emersion Books and check out An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Tony and Doug. Then take a look at Joseph R. Myers book, Organic Community, and Kester Brewin’s brand new book, Signs of Emergence. They are both well worth looking into for the curious and the serious. Will Samson’s new book, Justice in the Burbs, will soon be available from the same source (Baker). I met Will and enjoyed his imaginative gifts and kind spirit. He is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky and his wife, Lisa, is a fiction writer whose work attracts me based upon the conversation I had with Will.

One of the freshest voices in the room came from a person much closer to me in age, a grandmother no less. Her name was Denise Van Eck and she has previously been the community life pastor of the famous Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. She is an author, Leadership 101, and a mother, grandmother, speaker and writer. She specializes in team building and leadership development. When I came into the room on Friday morning and found the only seat at the back that I could see open I ended up next to Denise. What a delightful and alive woman. And her presentation was both fresh and very helpful. She addressed the problem of building community in one of the largest mega-churches in North America. She had no formulas, no programs and no power points, just a heart that overflowed with grace and wisdom. She said things that I have thought for years but never heard anyone say so graciously and wisely. Again I was encouraged by the fact that a woman speaker was part of a plenary session. Denise shared rich insights about relationships, rooted powerfully in a moving story she told about her teenage son and his being forced to conform to expected social norms in high school. She made him get a haircut, because of the pressures placed upon him and her by peers, and then tearfully regretted that she had damaged the core of her son’s artistic soul by misusing parental pr
essure and authority. I coul
d identify with her story and found her telling of this account deeply moving. You can find Denise via Emergent Village as well.

I found a lot to like about Emergent. Yes, I raised some questions about their patterns and movement tendencies and regarding some issues that leave me both concerned and hopeful. It seems to me that this movement needs to connect a more robust theology with its deep missiology. I will be attempting to learn more from these lovely Christians who care deeply about the future of the church in the West. I want to see many elements of classical and confessional theology discussed and worked out in this new mission context but I came away from the weekend meeting believing that these men and women desire the same. I also came away wondering why  so few in my generation ever invited a friendly outsider to address their audience and to offer criticisms.  This quality also endears me to these brothers and sisters deeply.