“What the hell have you dragged me to?” Those were the first words out of my mouth when “the man who would be head pastor” of the Dwelling Place dragged me to an emergent church. We’d been curious to see what other churches in the area who called themselves emergent looked like. Well, apparently they were about line-dancing. The pastor, in a cowboy hat, had encouraged the women of his congregation to start dancing during the music portion of the service. Yeah, I was the only black guy in the place. Yeah, the pastor had to “pull the service over” in order to explain that I was in the right place.

It was fine. They were in the middle of a series on finding God in music and the genre of the week was country music. The following week was hip-hop, and “the man who would be head pastor” was convinced that most of the congregation thought that I was the advance guy for the rap group that was due in that week. But it didn’t help ease my concerns about what a postmodern church is supposed to be about or look like.

For those that have no idea what I’m talking about, or have no idea what a PoMo (postmodern) or Emergent Church is, luckily for you PBS has been running a series of specials on the movement. Part 1 and Part 2 are up as transcripts (plus there are some video streams).

There is also a Brian Mclaren interview that opens with this question: How do you describe the emerging church? “It is a group of people who are trying to put together two things that have been apart. One of them is a fidelity to the Christian message, and a real concern about it actually being lived out in practice. And we’re saying you can’t have one without the other … When you try to put those things together, you end up with a stronger emphasis on practices. It’s not just doctrines that people get in their minds, although our thinking is very, very important. But also there is a desire to have practices that actually form us as people.”

This last point, the idea of practices that form us as people, has been what I’ve been continuing to meditate on. Between the Emergent Convention, my experiences in local emergent churches, and after seeing the movie Rize, I’ve been thinking a lot about the place of black people in the conversation called the Emergent Church. It didn’t help that a discussion on my message board addressing criticisms of the emergent church has erupted. As this sympathetic dude put it: What is the emergent movement doing to involve more diverse cultural groups. I see a lot of young white faces, but not much color. Is there an effort to reach the traditional black church, the growing Latino community in our country, and the larger global community of Christians, mostly catholic, that are ready to expand and develop into newer forms? Once again I will reiterate that I am a post-modern/emergent type of guy myself, but it is always going to be important to look at ourselves and be open about our weaknesses. Let’s try to get that toothpick out of our eye before it becomes a plank.

So think of this as an expansion on my last bit of mental noodling on black people and the emergent church.

Let me put the nature of my dilemma in context. As another postmodern brother put it, I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a Sankofa lately. (“Sankofa” is an Akan word which means, “one must return to the past in order to move forward.”) I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis, trying to work through my faith first as a Christian, then as a black man. I’ve already spoken about my spiritual journey, but obviously I’m not done yet.

In a lot of ways, the emergent church struck me as, well, the Christian equivalent of the grunge movement. A little subversive, a little edgy, and whole lot of white, middle class evangelicals trying to make Christianity look cool. In other words, originally I saw a lot of style over substance. However, once I dug a little deeper, read some of the foundational works, a lot of the substance of postmodernism resonated. I was left wondering how this would translate to black churches, wondering what an emergent African American church would look like or what a multi-cultural emergent church would look like. Better put, what would a multi-cultural church look like that drew on all worship traditions? Because, let me tell you, I ain’t feeling guitars, candles, and labyrinths. I love organs, drums, and gospel choirs way too much to give them up. Of course, part of this stems from the fact that we could all stand with a bigger definition of worship.

I guess I should start with whether or not black churches are in need of being a part of the conversation. It may sound elitist to say, but there were some issues that the historic black church managed to escape; some Postmodern leanings that have always been a part of who and what the black church is. For instance, we’ve been doing narrative theology from the jump. Looking back on the history of black Christianity, we had no choice but to focus on a narrative presentation of the faith, rather than on the development of a metaphysical system which attempted to draw infallible logical inferences from the Bible, reducing it to data in need of organizing. Not to say that this didn’t become more of an issue in the rise of seminary trained pastors, but by then, narrative theology was a part of the tradition.

Worship has always been experiential within the tradition of the black church. People tend to look at black churches and think that the attenders were in it for the emotional ride. Sure, we are an affective people, but it is a cognitive affectiveness: we feel the truth and worship is (intuitively) experiential. The emotional ride of worship has to be done within the narrative of the Gospel. Okay, I may have a bit of rose colored glasses on. Plenty of folks in my neighborhood go for the weekly show and the hollerin’, then come home and cause a ruckus during the rest of the week.

The historic black church has also been more missional in nature also. It had to be, given its context within the black community. Black people had had enough hell on earth to have to wait on the promise of an eternal heaven. Things had to start changing now, thus why the Church (big ‘c’, not solely the African American church) was the home of the Emancipation movement, Civil Rights movement, and has always set a tone of being a liberating presence in the community. With issues of poverty and economic and social justice at its forefront, the church, historically, has been socially conscious and thus relevant.

Yet the black church, too, has felt the sting of modernism and has seen its effectiveness lessened. How else can we explain our youth seeking a sense of family in gangs rather than in church? The decline of men in church attendance? The continuing break up of black families? As Brian Mclaren says of modernity and the church, what we think happened is that modern culture has been, in som
e ways, spiritually an arid place. It’s been spiritually a place that there wasn’t much room for authentic and communal spirituality. And so modernity brought us down.” We think that the church has, in many ways, already accommodated to modernity. And so the Christian message has become a product almost, and it and the methods of spreading it are like sales pitches. We feel that it has been individualized.

I have seen several modern tendencies infiltrate the black church. I am greatly concerned by this rise in the “health and wealth” Gospel (have enough faith and healing and money comes your way). Being in bed with nationalistic politics is no different from white evangelicals flexing their political power within the Republican party. And the perception of the pastor as (mini-) pope, well any overly pastor-centered church is in danger of becoming simply a cult of personality.

With the diagnosis in place, the next step is figuring out what our traditions of faith are and what we bring to the table. A friend blogged about Negro spirituals as subversive Christian practice. Musically, I’d love to see jazz incorporated more, maybe a worship team that is part jazz ensemble (this is a style issue, a reaction to white evangelical churches doing 70s era light right as choruses and calling it worship). The movie Rize has driven home the importance of dance as and in worship.

As I continue to think through this, I am exploring the Coptic Orthodoxya branch of Christianity that, according to tradition, the apostle Mark established in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century–and seeing what they have to offer in terms of practices.

I still might not find what I’m looking for. And maybe the critics of Emergent may have some valid points. I know that Brian McLaren is purposefully broadening the conversation in Africa and South America. There’s one thing that can’t be denied, however: when all is said and done, at least the Emergent movement allows for this sort of conversation. A conversation long overdue.

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