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. 

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  1. Acton Institute PowerBlog July 23, 2007 at 11:12 am

    A Weekend Emergent Village Experience

    This weekends 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 plenar

  2. Site Blog July 23, 2007 at 11:19 am

    A Weekend Emergent Village Experience

    This weekends Midwest Emergent Gathering, held July 20-21 in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was an

  3. Tony Jones July 23, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Great thoughts, John. It was wonderful to meet you and become friends.

  4. Helen July 23, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    John, I’m glad you were there and enjoyed it. I’m very happy to see you making new friends in place of the people who have decided they can’t be your friends any more.

  5. Chad July 24, 2007 at 7:23 am

    Nice post, John. I’m one of the editors who works on the emersion line, and I appreciate your kind words about our books. Thanks for being in the conversation.

  6. George C July 24, 2007 at 8:34 am

    Great Blog. I think your view of being a screwed up yet genuine church (as in the case of the Corinthian church) is dead on, yet many churches cannot see the possibilitym of such a thing. Apparently they don’t see their own flaws.
    The emergent movement has aton of flaws, but they are opening up the conversation about the ton of flaws in other parts of the church. Maybe if we are humble enough to learn from each other we’ll all come closer to what God would have us be.

  7. Bob DeWaay July 24, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    I held a public debate with Doug Pagitt and have met Tony Jones as well. These men do not confess key Christian truths such as the subsitutionary atonement and the reality of a future judgment in which some are condemned. They are nice people for sure; but denying truths that Christians have believed since the days of the apostles is serious business which you seem unconcerned about. This is a big problem. Have you decided that these key truths are of no consequence? If so, on what grounds.

  8. Rich July 26, 2007 at 11:14 am

    [Read the following in your best sports announcer’s voice] Armstrong makes his move. He’s really taking a risk on this one – sure to take a beating for this bold move. He shoots … and scores. Many young Christians hear his wisdom, compassion, and critical concerns and learn from it! But wait … from out of nowhere he’s hit by a fundamentalist one-two combination: First, the dreaded straw man argument – who can stand before such oversimplification. And if that were not enough – BOOM – he’s hit with the classic guilty-by-association move. That’s gotta hurt. What will Armstrong do? The straw-man move is hard to counter – since it really doesn’t exist except in the mind of its wielder and the guilty-by-association move is almost impossible to argue against – especially when the wielder assumes that even simple dialogue with another assumes full approval and acceptance of all their beliefs. How will this one end? We’ll return after a brief word from our sponsors…

  9. Mike Clawson July 26, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    LOL Rich! That’s great.
    Speaking of cheap shots and guilt by association, you might be interested in this one by Ken Silva:
    But I wouldn’t sweat it John. In the EC world it’s almost a mark of honor to have been trashed by Silva. 😉

  10. Doug July 26, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    “…the subsitutionary atonement and the reality of a future judgment in which some are condemned.”
    “Have you decided that these key truths are of no consequence?”
    So, were you planning on addressing Bob’s question? If it’s a straw man, knock it down.

  11. Mike Clawson July 27, 2007 at 12:37 am

    Bob, I think, needs to substantiate that Tony and Doug actually deny these doctrines beyond just his claims that they do. Until he does that, I see no reason why John should be responsible to defend views that may or may not be held by others with whom he is merely acquainted and happened to be at a conference with.
    Besides, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we invited John to come and critique the emerging church movement – implying of course that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything that EC folk believe. Bob’s question really is nothing more than another attempt at guilt-by-association.

  12. John H. Armstrong July 27, 2007 at 11:59 am

    Mike and Rich have stated my response quite well. I try not to attack “straw men” regardless of who puts them up. Once you start down this road it is like putting a thousand word crossword puzzle together without the box top.
    I am not defending everything Tony and Doug believe, whatever that really is. I am not sure that the accusations widely made are in fact correct. I just spent three days with Spencer Burke, whose Web site and work is widely known and criticized, and I asked him some straight-on questions about all kinds of things. While we do not agree I find much of the debate is about the way he, and others, say things. They provoke certain theological defenders of “the faith” precisely because they are trying to get us all to think a bit further about what we know and do not know. Spencer and I got along wonderfully well. He is a serious and real Christian with a wild spirit and an endearing personality. I spent time in conversation, prayer and just good natured fun with him and he is a neat guy.
    Now that I’ve said so I guess that makes me a “bad guy” since guilt-by-association is the standard MO for many Internet attack sites. Can’t say I wasn’t warned since Spencer told me hanging around with him would create more enemies for me.
    My problem is simple. I want to keep learning. To do that I need to listen and love. And to do that I must take risks. There is a kind of hyper-orthodoxism that passes for real orthodoxy that knows all the truth and runs away from all such dialog and friendship. I chose to pursue a different course.
    I still like E. J. Carnell’s definition of fundamentalism, which applies in much of this stuff: “Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.” These debates are far more about personalities and who gets to name the heresy than about historic and confessional orthodoxy as framed by the church over the ages.

  13. Doug July 27, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    If Doug and Tony actually did deny these doctrines, what would be a reasonable response from your perspective?

  14. John H. Armstrong July 28, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    I do not do “hypothetical” theologizing in public. Unless I read them carefully for myself I would say nothing at all about Doug and Tony on these issues. Since I am not persuaded of the accusations made against them, by my own investigation, subjecting this to further discussion about their views is not worthy of my discussion.
    Do these brothers have a different model of the atonement? My guess is that they very likely do. This would not trouble me, however, since the Church has held to several models and I have affinity for each of them for different reasons. (I believe in substitutionary atonement but do not believe it is the only thing said about atonement in the Bible.) In the end these models of the atonement are our best attempts to explain a number of biblical texts that speak about the dying of Jesus for our salvation.
    As for future judgment dogmas there are also a number of acceptable approaches to various issues that exist within orthodox confessional tradition that are all variously faithful to the strands of biblical text that we have to work with as Bible readers. Some evangelicals get bent out of shape over specifics that the Bible treats as less than specific, or so it seems to me.

  15. Korey July 29, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Enjoyed your thoughts and your responses. I’m heartened by some of the depth, charity, and sincerity in the conversations I’m beginning to witness amongst Christians all all types and backgrounds across the spectrum.

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