Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

“Emorgent”: Can a Mormon Be an Emergent Christian?

230.pngOver the last five years I have become passionate about what’s going on in the “emerging church conversation,” a grassroots network of Christian thinkers, mostly skewing younger, who claim a grace-full Christian faith that’s grounded in the teachings of Jesus without legalism or fundamentalism. As far as I know, I am the only person who self-identifies as eMORgent, which I define as a Mormon who is interested in the Emergent conversation. I resonate with its appeal to justice and the human experience, its willingness to question the familiar, its innovations with worship and its return to story.


The best strands within Emergent manage to be always open to change while also dependent upon ancient practices–witness Tony Jones’s excellent recent book about the Didache, a first-century manual for Christian life and practice that Emergents have resurrected from the dustbin. To be Emergent is to be always emerging; it’s not to have emerged. It will be interesting to see how long Emergents can maintain their energy and enthusiasm without becoming entrenched in their own ideas and burgeoning institutions. The history of religion is not on their side at this point, since history is littered with religious groups that began as revolutions and slowly ossified, only to be upended a generation or two later by another burst of renewal.


What does Emergent offer to me as a committed Latter-day Saint?


At its best, the Emergent ideal can enliven burned-out people and put some new wine in tired wineskins. Emergent does this by balancing focus on Christ–Christ as savior, Christ as Lord–with a focus on Jesus. I worry that Mormons don’t talk about Jesus enough. Over the last twenty years, we’ve seen a marked shift in LDS leaders’ rhetoric toward Christ, whose name is now prominently displayed in the Church’s logo. It’s wonderful to have this emphasis and renewal within the LDS Church–more theological attention is paid to grace and the uniqueness of Christ’s atonement than in any prior generation of Mormon history. But why is it only Primary children who are on a first-name basis with Jesus?


Whether we use “Christ” or “Jesus” is not a navel-gazing exercise or an irrelevant semantic question. Religious scholars have shown the crucial importance of mere nomenclature. The theology book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, for example, demonstrates that it takes a certain stance of cultural privilege even to relate to Christ–which is a title, not a name, and which emphasizes formality and the distance between the seeker and the Sought. White women in this theologian’s study preferred that distance, whereas black women connected with the human Jesus who wept, suffered, ate, alienated his family, and chose to hang out with sinners instead of the Establishment. This Jesus is about skirting the edges of religious authority, not being wedded to it.


This is the Jesus that Emergent folks are talking about, and it’s often difficult to find him in official Mormon Church meetings, although he dwells richly in our conversations, our commitment to service and outreach, and our families. Part of the Emergent story is that we are more likely to encounter Jesus when we step outside our comfort zones and stop doing church primarily because that is what we’re expected to do.

Where must a Mormon draw the line with Emergent theology? A few years ago when I was visiting Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was invited to attend a talk and book signing by Rob Bell. Rob Bell was clearly one of the rising stars of the emerging church conversation, so I was very interested to hear what he had to say. (For the record, it’s very much a live question whether Bell can be considered Emergent, since he pastors one of the largest megachurches in Michigan, sells out Madison Square Garden when he’s in New York, and is into church growth and some other issues that most Emergent folks just don’t care about. But if you only had his books to go on, it’s clear that his theology is heavily influenced by Emergent ideas.) This very earnest young man had people nodding and “mmm”ing as he discoursed on the many ways the evangelical church had failed him and other young people. For most of it, I was right there with him. When he began talking about the institutional Christian church, however, he made a casual statement that would give any Mormon pause: “After all,” he said, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world, “Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to found a church, now did he?”


Well, a huge part of the Mormon story is that he did. Our gospel is not just that he came, served, died, and was resurrected, but that he left us with apostles and prophets, as well as an institution that is itself a means of grace. Mormons cannot not sweep any of that aside. It is possible to affirm those core beliefs without committing the all too common Mormon sin of ecclesiolatry, making an idol of the Church and its leaders. The key is to find a balance–we can learn from the Emergents about being open to God’s fresh call to do a new thing and to sometimes work outside of institutions and those in leadership. But we also need to stay humble and open to the fact that old wisdom is often actually the best wisdom, as the Emergents themselves have found.


Recommended reading on Emergent:

The Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight
The New Christians by Tony Jones
From Stone to Living Word by Debbie Blue

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    LDS beliefs are absolutely tied into an understanding of Jesus Christ being the head of an organized church. Third Nephi depicts him calling and ordaining leaders, giving them special instruction in addition to what he gives the people, directing all to receive baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and editing their written scriptures as well as dictating the post-Captivity scripture of Malachi to become part of their canon.
    A similar picture is drawn of Jesus Christ, during the time his body is in the tomb, going to the world of the dead spirits of mankind, and organizing his disciples there on a mission to preach the gospel to those who died without hearing the Gospel. Indeed, a major part of LDS Church doctrine is related to the need for the Church on earth to build temples and perform vicarious ordinances so that the Church of Christ in the Spirit World can advance.
    We Mormons return again and again to Paul’s statement in Ephesians, about the need for apostles and prophets in order to perfect the Saints, to make us more like Jesus Christ. We strongly believe that it was Christ’s intent that we organize our efforts in order to advance his work of salvation, both on earth and in the Spirit World. The words of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon at the Temple in Third Nephi emphasize that those who come to Christ are expected to become a light and a guide for others, and to take their witness to the rest of society with the goal of transforming it, as the Nephites did, and as we look forward to doing in the coming Millenium.
    Professor Hugh Nibley, in his writings about what has come down to us about the 40 day post-Resurrection ministry of Jesus Christ, before his ascension from the Mount of Olives, points out that the earliest Christians considered the Church to be a treasury of the powers and blessings Christ gave the apostles in the weeks before Pentecost, and that one gains access to those powers and blessings through the Church that Christ organized and tasked. The most precious blessings and powers are those related to the covenants made in temples, which clearly have ties to the teachings that the first apostles received, going beyond the basic initiation of baptism and affirming the enrollment of each Saint into the family of the Father through the merits of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    The transformation of individuals into joint heirs with Christ is the business of the Church. It is not something that happens to you alone in a desert monastery, but instead comes about when one tries to emulate Jesus in the daily encounters with the others that he suffered and died to save. When Jesus told Joseph Smith in vision that he should join none of the existing churches, Jesus was not rejecting the concept of an ecclessia, but emphasizing it must be founded on correct understandings and real power from God in order to be acceptable to God.

  • Thom Hunter

    I and most of the people I know at the large Southern Baptist church I attend are quite comfortable using Jesus and Christ interchangeably. We have a congregation that is pretty diverse for a Southern Baptist church. I would not put us in the emergent category, but more as people who truly do believe in the priesthood of the believer. As for the “church?” We are the church; all believers together.
    I don’t see how any institution can be the means of grace, as that is what Christ Himself is. However, I do believe that churches as a whole have a great deal to learn about extending grace as the bride of Christ.
    I believe the church of today needs not so much to emerge as to simplify, re-commit to the inerrant truths of Scripture and honor God with the way we live and treat others. The most evident thing and the thing we should most have in common is our love for each other and our desire to see individuals healed so they can rise above their earthly struggles. We should concern ourselves with equipping individuals to emerge.

  • DMc

    “I don’t see how any institution can be the means of grace, as that is what Christ Himself is.”
    Does one need to be baptized to access grace?
    Is baptism a work?
    Is there any authority in the Priesthood?
    Does Laying on of Hands transfer anything, assuming the one Laying on Hands has any authority?
    Can you hold a Bible, jump in a lake and shout, “I baptize myself in the name of Messiah, by the authority in this Book!” then consider yourself saved?
    What is the airspeed velocity of a laden swallow?
    (African or European?)

  • T

    Some great comments and discussion going on here, thanks to all. Here are my thoughts. I have read many emergent authors including Tony Jones mentioned in the blog post. I think it is a mistaken assumption to believe that emergents want to blow up the church. What I believe they are reacting to are claims of being the “right church” or denomination, and the divisiveness that emanates from such claims. As Mr. Swenson points out, the LDS church believes it is the church based on “correct understandings and power from God.” (The flipside being, other churches are not.) Mormons are not alone in this thinking; all Christian denominations engage in this thinking to some degree. Emergents want to move beyond these discussions that seem to divert from the full message of the gospel, to be salt and light to the world, and provide comfort and support to the needy, to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, to work towards the redemption of creation – things we all can agree on.
    Emergents do suggest that believers can come to Christ outside of the structure of a church. They also suggest that groups of believers can engage in fellowship (even ‘be a church’) outside of the physical structure of a church building. But in no way to they discount the importance of Christian fellowship, worship, or the benefits of organizational structures. Those who accuse emergents of wanting to throw away church structure are misinterpreting the point. When Rob Bell says, “Jesus didn’t come to found a church,” he’s trying to make a point that we shouldn’t be confused about what Jesus’ main mission was and still is. Keep in mind, Bell is pastor of a mega-church and talks often about church growth. So he’s apparently trying to make a point based on what he sees going on in churches. Emergents see many churches drawn inward, busy at “being a church,” and missing the opportunity to reach out beyond their walls. That is what is meant by “Jesus didn’t come to found a church.”

  • DMc

    Bell has an argument against that which he is familiar. He dosen’t understand the truth. Rather than informing people of his doubts he needs to help others and not just rant about things that the other unenlightened will ponder without resolution. Christ mission was to lead us toward perfection. Perfection is serving others when help is needed, not when it is convenient to help. Otherwise there is no personal sacrifice.
    Churches should be there to provide a means to allow people the opportunity to be helpful before, and at the moment, help is needed. To quote the Boy Scouts, “Be Prepared” to help others. It’s wrong to use local church funds to build the congregation so more church funds can be gathered or fund outreach programs in other countries and overlook the needs of individuals in the congregation. Bible study and sermons are not enough. Pastors do not need to visit everybody every month but people need to be checked on. Maybe, assign active church members to check on inactive members and even other active members. What a novel way to get everyone involved and avert crisis! (not my idea)
    I know nothing about Mr. Bell’s organizational outreach so I should not presume. I have seen other denominational pastoral pet projects overwhelm congregations and alienate people from going to Church. Mr Bell should help people when it is anything but easy to help, then pray for an answer to his query and then implement the answer. Mr. Bell kvetching in public serves no purpose. Especially if he does not understand how easily he can be misunderstood. Yes, others will agree with him but a majority does not constitute truth. (The Nicene Creed is a perfect example but that’s my opinion)
    The point I’m trying to make, though not very well is you don’t look too join a church for what it can do for you. You look to a church to find more ways to help others. Fear of Hell is fine to start but if you do not help others, even when it hurts, you are not going to end up anywhere near God the Father. Yes, works don’t save but they do allow access to Grace. Works are not an involutary reaction to salvation. We would not be judged by them if we had no control over them.
    A church should not be judged by a congregation’s inability to serve but if basic principles are not in place then a church is at fault. It will then show it is a church of men not God. Mr. Bell is railing against churches of men. He needs to search a find a Church of God not search for people to agree with him under the guise of a Church of God. So, before this turns into an unsolicited book, I’ll stop here.

  • New Age Cowboy

    Miss Reiss,
    Great blog!
    I practice Religious Science which has a Christian bent. I’ve practiced Zen and Nichiren Buddhism in the past.
    I’ve always been impressed with LDS folks. This blog works to confirm that positive perception.
    I think it’s great that you explore thought which isn’t necesarly LDS.
    When people mock organized religion, I like to ask them what they think of Jesus or the Buddha… and then I point out that were it not for these organized/institutionalized groups, we’d probably not be so familiar with Jesus or the Buddha.
    It can be a temptation to idolize anything, including organizations. I guess we just do the best we can.

  • Andrew

    As an “Emergent” living in SLC, I resonated with this article. Great stuff. Commented on it here:

  • Jana Riess

    Andrew, thanks for the kind comment. I enjoyed reading your blog, and I’m glad you got in touch with Robert Millet.

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