The first three promised posts on the Emerging Movement, on Praxis, Protest, and Postmodernity, evoke a final post on the positives. There has been some justifiable criticism of the Emerging Movement for its constant criticism, though I think from the beginning the criticism has been matched (and sometimes outdone by) creative resolutions. So, today I want to focus on what the Emerging Movement is for. Let me count the ways.
The EM is pro-missional in thrust. The term “missional” is a favorite among many in the EM because it goes beyond the older Christian terms like “mission” and “missionary,” and because it is being defined holistically. To be missional means to embrace a holistic gospel – it is for the whole person (heart, soul, mind, and strength), for the whole society (politics, economy, culture, environment), and for the whole world. Missional avoids the constant bantering between Evangelicals and Liberals over social justice and evangelism, and it avoids the 20th Century political theorists regular diatribes against colonialism. Just what that “mission” is also quite clear for the EM if rarely defined in detail: the mission is the Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus.
Saying the community is missional is to say that the task of the community of faith is to perform the gospel in such a way that the gospel is seen and experienced through that community. The EM worries about a rational theology that is not shaped by personal theology, and the EM invites its gatherers to be Christians, to be followers of Jesus, and to let others see the gospel in action. The gospel is to be performed as well as proclaimed. Evangelism then takes on the sense that the local community is the “advocate” of the gospel rather than simply an individual with a tract in hand. There is a strong conviction that people come to faith because they have come to see the gospel and experience the gospel because they have grown to trust and love others who live that gospel out in their daily life.
The EM is happy to let the following line of thinking in the New Testament shape its entire “missional” focus: the themes of the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1, the themes of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4, the themes of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—7, the re-statement of Jesus’ mission to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, and the descriptions of the early Jerusalem community in Acts 2—4 are enough: that, the EM would say, is the Kingdom vision of Jesus and that, they contend, ought to be the missional focus of every local church.
And when the EM thinks of missional it thinks of a community being missional: it is not about Lone Ranger activities but of an entire community “incarnating” (another favorite term) a missional gospel in a local way. But “community” is also an important term because “community” can easily be blended with the local (non-church) community so that the walls between the “church” community and the “local” community are permeable. This, too, is part of being missional.
A final feature of the EM concern with being missional is this: the mission of the Christian community is to discover the “mission” of God in that local community and participate in that work of God. There is a robust humility in this view: the EM avoids thinking it is the “right” people surrounded by a majority of “wrong” people and instead knows that only God is “right” and it is the task of the human to find what right work God is doing and participate in God’s work. This big, big sense of God’s work is usually expressed by referring to Jesus’ “Kingdom” language, but at times appeal is made to Romans 8:18-25 or to Revelation 21—22 and other such cosmic redemption texts. What all this means is that redemption is holistic rather than just spiritual.
Second, the EM is pro-Jesus. This may sound cute but it isn’t. It can be said that the EM is theologically driven by a reactoin to the sort of theology that flowed from the ancient creeds into the Reformation and from the Reformation into the present Evangelical culture. And that theology is often abstract, systematic, and rooted in logic and reason. The EM wants to root its theology, which is more practical than it is theoretical, in the incarnate life of Jesus himself. It wants a theology that is shaped by personhood and relationship rather than just rationality and systemic thinking. (Let’s not use simplistic dichotomies; instead, this is an issue of emphasis.)
So, the EM focuses on the life of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus and anchors what it does and believes in Jesus. The rest of the New Testament and Bible are read through the lens of the Kingdom vision of Jesus. When it thinks about politics, it goes to Jesus; when it comes to global relations, it goes to Jesus; when it thinks about economics and life-style issues, it goes to Jesus; when it thinks about racial tensions, it goes to Jesus. This radical orientation to Jesus’ Kingdom vision, so characteristic of the Anabaptist movement, shapes everything I have observed in the EM.
Third, the EM is pro-Church. To make this claim requires some nuance and some careful thinking. The EM is pro-Church more than it is critical of the Church, and it is plenty critical. The EM is both post-Evangelical and post-Liberal churches but that critical stance over against the Church “as it has been done” is not left dangling. The EM is pro-Church in that it is ecumenical. It is not ecumenical in the classical sense of the Ecumenical Movement, which was set on a course of finding a doctrinal basis among sets of Christians who could not agree, but in the sense of being missionally focused. Because it is missionally focused, it finds it much easier to cooperate with other Christians with a similar missional focus and to cooperate with other Christians because its own theological agendas are less central.
Central to this sense of being missional is the Christian life itself, and the EM is exploring the great Christian traditions about Christian spirituality and spiritual formation. One finds them quoting Brother Lawrence as well as Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, John Stott and Henri Nouwen. A very good book along this line is by the National Coordinator, Tony Jones, called The Sacred Way and he draws deeply from the entire, ecumenical Church tradition on spirituality. The EM, because it is not shackled by denominational worries, finds fruit in the whole Garden of Eden, that is, the Church.
It is also pro-Church in that the Church is designed to be a community. Here again, the EM reminds one of the Anabaptists or the Jesus movement of the 60s and 70s, where Christian communities grew out of a radical commitment to the Church as a community. For the EM, while it shows similarities to these early Christian experiments (some of them quite successful, like Reba Place in Evanston Illinois), community is more missionally-driven than (as was the case with many of the Christian communities) fellowship-oriented. And, as was mentioned above, the community emphasis is a community that seeks to blend with the local community into a harmonious effort to realize the ideals of the Kingdom of God.
Once again, this pro-Church community focus leads us back to its local expression. The EM’s focus on Church is not on ecclesiastical structures or denominational politics, but on a local church community of faith incarnating the kingdom vision of Jesus in its local community for the good of the world. There is more to be said: the EM is openly and centrally-concerned with the Christian faith as something personal at the local and deepest level. The whole person is to be challenged, and this includes the popularity of story-telling as a feature of EM worship and preaching (which itself is undergoing its own emergence). Story-telling invites both the preachers and those gathered to be authentic and tell the truth about their own story.
Which leads to yet another element of this pro-church focus: it is a regular feature of the emerging movement to claim that the present generation values relationships and authenticity. This is probably true, but none has exploited this more for church ministry than John Burke at Gateway Community Church, in Austin Texas, in his book No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You are Culture in the Church. Here is an exposition of the features of authenticity and how those features have shaped a vibrant and growing church. One of his comments is this approach allowed them to “start a church out of the culture rather than for the culture” (303), and this permits a culture that is trusting and tolerant and humble about truth while it works with folks who are broken and alone. Gateway manifests much that is good in the EM. (I have no idea if John Burke would call himself “emerging” or not, and it doesn’t matter to me for it is the vision he articulates that resonates with the EM.)
Fourth, the EM is pro-culture. This characteristic has been the favorite target of criticism by the more conservative theological dimension of the Church. Again, several features of this pro-culture stance emerge. The EM is pro-culture in that it often announces that it is either postmodern or concerned with the postmodern generation. Postmodernity, if you have followed any of the discussion, is nearly impossible to define. Essentially, the postmodern turn is the belief that “metanarratives” (large stories that put the world together for us) are no longer viable because there is no way to prove them by reason or scientific method. Every one and every group is entitled to a metanarrative. This postmodern turn does not so much deny the value of a metanarrative as much as it contends none of them can be proven to be true without faith in the metanarrative. The EM tends to celebrate the demise of metanarratives, finding in this demise the opportunity for “micro”narratives of local communities to given a hearing.
Some EM thinkers toy with agreeing and not agreeing with this understanding of postmodernity and suggest that the Christian faith is one such “metanarrative” that can’t be proven true. Well, there is something dangerous and something healthy in such a claim. It is dangerous if it means Christian faith is just a preference rather than the truth, but it is healthy if it means (as many Christian theologians think it does) that Christians have to accept their fallenness and their limited grasp of truth and live with less than certainty on many issues.
Finally, the EM is pro-sensory worship. This is perhaps one of the most notable features that many know about. It may be a direct influence of Dan Kimball, in his Emerging Worship, or the influence of Robert Webber, but many in the EM form and shape worship services (“gatherings” to use their term) in order to foster sensory experience in worship. In doing so, they draw from deep and ancient Christian traditions. Candles, incense, darkness, labyrinths, physically acting out various features of the Christian message and experience, even dead silence are some of the specific features of EM worship. Why? Because it is believed that both the human is a whole (heart, soul, mind, and body) and the postmodern world resonates with full-form experiences. Here again the missional focus is prominent as is the coming into contact with the ancient traditions of the Church, and one such feature is the use of lectio divina, or communal reading of Scripture, meditating on that text, and then praying through that text in the context of a community. An important word here for EM worship is participation: the EM worship opposes seeker-friendly entertainment-oriented weekend services and calls for a smaller, more intimate, and participatory form of worship.
So, here is my read of the Emerging Movement: praxis, protest, postmodernity, and pro-aplenty.