Emerging & Emergent

“The Religious Right is so huge, so powerful, that any divergence from it will automatically become the Religious Left.” — Jim Henderson

“There’s confusion between keeping relevant and just keeping up.” — Leonard Sweet
Words are a funny thing: meaning is rarely fixed. And in consumer-driven America, we gorge ourselves on catch-phrases and kitschy slogans until their mere-mention makes everyone nauseous. So with Emergent, emerging, missional, postmodern, and so on... Not all that different from "born again" or other Evangelical standards we've done to death.

Lots of folks use words like "emerging" and "Emergent" but they often mean very different things. A few years ago I almost got myself into some trouble writing an article for Relevant Magazine on Emergent, what it’s been, and what it’s becoming. The original manuscript focused on three interviews: with Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jim Henderson.

The controversy surrounding the article was palpable and a little surprising, as I wasn’t attempting to decry or defame Emergent. In fact, till that point I had considered myself an “Emergent” Christian. In most ways, I still do today. I find myself compatible with many of Emergent's approaches to Christianity and discussions about faith. More importantly, I share the broad and flexible worldview that gave birth to Emergent in the first place. So I'm still a friend in the conversation. But I tend to find that the term “emerging” offers more space – a little more freedom to play and experiment with words and ideas without organizational baggage.  I might reject the term "Emerging" altogether and change this blog's name to "EvolvingChristian.com" but I don't feel like going to the trouble of rebuilding web traffic.  And I don't want to sound like I'm trying to play off my friend Rachel Held Evan's new book Evolving in Monkey Town.

What is the difference between Emergent and emerging? Sometimes very little - sometimes a lot! Many emerging Christians could stand next to Emergent Christians and see no difference in worldview/Godview.  More and more, most "hip" Gen-X Evangelicals look no different, either. But there are plenty of divergences between members and subsets of Christian "emergence"…

EmergentJust what is Emergent? Is it emerging from something or to something? Hopefully, it is both. Tony Jones acknowledges that there are many misunderstandings of exactly what Emergent is and isn’t. “It’s not a denomination,” he says. “It’s not a theological think tank. It’s not a capitalist moneymaking venture. It’s not heresy. It’s not the new Christian Left.”

So then, what is it?
Try this on: “Emergent is an amorphous collection of friends who’ve decided to live life together, regardless of our ecclesial affiliations, regardless of our theological commitments,” Jones says. “We want to follow Christ in community with one another. In a very messy way, we’re trying to figure out what that means.”

Brian McLaren puts it a slightly different way. “We've tried to accurately describe ourselves as a growing friendship engaging in what we hope will be constructive conversation.”

According to Jones, there is one principle that ties Emergent together. “What binds people in Emergent is that most everybody would rally under the flag of hope,” he says. “We have hope for the future. We have hope for the Church. We have hope for the kingdom of God to break into the present and transform the present.”

Whatever your feelings on Emergent, it’s fair to say that one primary difference between emerging and Emergent is that Emergent is an organization with a board of directors. For several years, Emergent even had a national director: Tony Jones (I was impressed to see Jones step down from that position in 2008 in an attempt to allow more diffused leadership through a network of directors, sharing in the process of plotting Emergent's ongoing course). Those Christians, leaders and churches affiliating themselves with Emergent are taking a bigger risk in their alignment by directly associating themselves with personalities like Brian McLaren, Doug Paggit, Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Karen Ward, Tony Jones and others.

The Emergent Village website explains:
Above all, we became convinced that living into the Kingdom meant doing it together, as friends. Thus, we committed ourselves to lives of reconciliation and friendship, no matter our theological or historical differences.
Despite some of the things Tony Jones has said (“we’re not Liberal, we’re not the Christian Left, we’re not a theological thinktank,” etc…) there are outward indications of where the tendencies of Emergent adherents lean. Emergent Christians probably are slightly more liberal than many of their “emerging” counterparts (I probably wouldn’t include myself in that clarification). And it is likely that the greatest value most Emergent Christians find in Emergent is the theological and ecclesiological ideas produced by the collective. A thinktank, like it or not. Emergent does a great job of providing opportunities for community and connection, both online and in the flesh through national, regional and local “cohort” events. But the majority of Christians attracted to Emergent probably glean the most tangible benefit from the books, websites and other publications of its leaders.

Emerging Emerging is… well… broader. Anyone who is Emergent is emerging, but not everyone who is emerging is Emergent.

Make sense?

Let’s try this: Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Seattle fame was an original member of the Emergent collective in its nascent stages. Mark is certainly not Emergent any longer – he abandoned the movement in distaste and frustration with what he perceived to be strong liberal (equated as "heretical") undertones.  Mark remains an active (and powerful) voice in emerging church dialogue, as his network of churches gains in adherents and influence. But Mark is a neo-conservative with very strong stances against women in leadership, and against the LGBT community.

However, radicals like Shane Claiborne, futurists like Leonard Sweet, evangelists like Jim Henderson, activists like Jim Wallis and pastors like Erwin McManus all fall into the broad category of “emerging” Christians. With perhaps some crossover from time to time. Marcus Borg has even begun to call himself "emerging," a marked change in direction from the classic liberalism found in his academic endeavors.  Now he wants to produce work that is actually practically beneficial to the church.

The term “postmodern” has become tossed around almost synonymously with Emergent and emerging in reference to Christianity. This may be unfair, but in practice, these movements were the first widely recognized efforts within the church to address the challenges of shifting cultural, intellectual and philosophical realities. Particularly in a postmodern setting.

“The way forward is going to require something much bigger than any one group, including Emergent,” Brian McLaren says. “I believe that in the postmodern world, truth and power are widely distributed. What I'm hoping to see is a network of collaborative networks—maybe like birds feeling the urge to migrate north at the same time because they all sense the same smell of springtime in the air. I am quite certain Emergent will be one little flock in that migration. I hope all of us who are catching that scent can migrate together, guided by the True North of Jesus, the Gospel and grace.”

McLaren has a nice way with words.

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Lisa DeLay said...

Did you do this on a "filthy Mac"? : )

Glad to visit, and props for getting to buy this hot domain name, you stud.

Would you care to comment on if emergent... or emerging Christianity is growing monolithic in your opinion
any comments about scripture and its role?



2Pete said...

Nice Lisa, good stuff. It's in the Bible because it's true, not the other way around.

Len Sweet's "Out of the Question..." got banned by the Southern Baptists for suggesting JESUS was a HIGHER authority than the Bible. "Heavens preserve us!" Sounds like the kind of Orthodoxy Chuck Colson would stand on ;)

Thanks for the visit to my site! As to your question, "Is Emerging/Emergent becoming too monolithic...?" I'll be responding on my blog in the next few weeks but my short answer is "no." I don't think the circles have tightened. I still find incredible diversity among the groups, thinkers and "friends" of emerging Christian thought and Emergent.

But I have found Emergent becoming increasingly defensive in the last few years. The comment sections on EmergentVillage.com looks frighteningly similar to the comment sections at EmergentNO, and I think that's a problem.

Diversity and neighborly love have a hard time flourishing in a culture of debate and antagonism. Moreover, it's not a welcoming environment for newcomers or "outsiders." If the EC is to continue being a transcendant spiritual movement/conversation of Christian love, it will have to stop shooting itself in the foot.

My two cents.

Keep up the good work Lisa,

David Emme said...

In everything i have seen about emergent my question is how can you follow Chrost of you do not believe in the bible. Besides seeing emergent no different then old scholl modernism/liberalism/social gospel which died long ago-again how can you follow Christ without the bible. This whole thing as an expression of that day is nothing but a rehashed understanding of modernism teaching the bible might be god for some morals but the rest is all myth/legend and not true. Of course when Evolution supplanted Genesis 1-3 Christ was gone for that heldthe firsty prophesy of Christ. There is no spark of divinity and no incarnation in every single person(another word for spark of divinity in the brotherhood of man) and wander when are pewople are going to wake up if you are going to follow Christ as he was the Word of God as far as I see it emergent belief means the bible is good for wiping your bums bums with or taking the pages when you run out of papaers to toke with.

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