Another death certificate for the emerging church

So the Wall Street Journal has proclaimed that Emerging Church has fizzled out. Brett McCracken has declared it a hipster trend and we’re moving on, because the hipsters were never about Jesus.

I don’t really want to talk about whether it’s dead or not. I don’t know. I know a lot of intelligent people who are still involved, and I think that it will have a huge impact on American religion for many years to come. My sense is that what died was “emerging” as an evangelical re-branding effort. The evangelical movement could not control the Gen Xers, so they will declare them dead. But the people who were writing interesting things are still writing. Those reeling from the after-effects of evangelicalism have not gone away. People who struggle to respond faithfully to postmodernism have not gone away. Whatever is happening, it’s clear that a transition is occurring and there are things that we can learn right now.

I say “we” with discomfort. I have felt shut out of the “Emergent” movement. I am a pastor in a historic, intergenerational congregation with traditional liturgy. A few years ago, when I asked an Emergent writer and leader if there was room for me, if the conversation could be about both/and (both innovation and tradition), he told me clearly and emphatically, “No.” Denominations were going to die at any moment, and I was holding onto a lumbering dinosaur. I was not part of a denominational church so that I could live out the fullness of my calling in a community of faith, but in order to gain power for myself.

As someone who grew up in a church that systematically oppressed women, who was constantly told that my calling into ministry was a sin and the only reason I felt a longing to minister was because I could not accept my God-given role of submission, and I was all about power, the soundtrack sounded the same…even though the intent was different. I feared that people in the movement did not understand the difference between abusive power and spiritual empowerment. I bolted.

(And, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe me, I’ll be happy to give anyone the name, place, date and precise time of the conversation. I will email it to you though. I won’t do it publicly. But, remember, if you keep questioning the validity of people who complain because your experience has been different, then you just might be contributing to the problem.)

Many people wonder why I often make a distinction that I am not a part of the capital “E” “Emergent” movement, even though I write about being faithful in the midst of postmodernism and cultural shifts. Not to mention the fact that I dearly love many who are in the heart of the movement. It’s because that was one of many conversations that I’ve had. In spite of this, I have found friends among the loyal radicals—those who are in the midst of denominations, understand the shifts in culture, and are working to respond faithfully to them.

The Emergent movement might be dead. Denominations might die. But God’s not dead. I guess the question is, what we can learn in all this? How can we retool? How can we keep being the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of the shifts and changes? What is God calling us to become? Here are a couple of things that I have learned from this larger conversation.

First, we need each other. We need the tradition and wisdom of the generations who have come before us. We need the Boomers and the Builders. And we need the church movements of the past. We need the wisdom that comes from church structures and we need the passion that breeds in the postevangelical movement. There is no way that we can shut out all evangelicals and all denominational Christians and expect that a movement will survive.

Second, we will need to be kind with each other when it comes to financial security. Often times, in our new church movements, we can heap shame on each other for not starting new churches, or guilt one another for not giving everything up and living with the poor. If a person receives a pension then she’s a sell-out. If he receives book royalties then he’s a sell-out. Shoot… if a person runs ads on her blog and gets a monthly check for $1.27, she’s a sell-out. If he blogs for Beliefnet, he’s a sell-out.

If we continue this sort of hardcore attitude, it may be difficult for us to sustain in the long run. Many of us have families. We have student loans and mortgage payments. We love Jesus, but our kids need backpacks to go back to school. Many of us hope that we will not be eating dog food when we retire. We will keep having difficulty planting churches and working for social justice if we don’t have some realization that sometimes we need money. Our ministries need money. That doesn’t make us greedy capitalists. That doesn’t make us all about power. It’s just reality.

Third (and I have been clumsy as I’ve talked about this in the past, but I still think there’s more to say), when people complain that they are being left out (women, LGBTs, different ethnicities), there has been an assumption in the Emergent movement that there is no power structure, so there is no way that people can be left out.

It’s important to understand when we have power. And it’s vital that we use it to empower others in their ministries. If we want a diverse conversation, we will need to make sure that it happens. There are many people who have been historically left out of church leadership. Some have been ill-treated blatantly or discreetly. As a result, they just don’t have sharp elbows. They will not push themselves up to the table and make a place with ease. Those of us who are people of privilege will need to understand this. We will need to keep making spaces and extending invitations.

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