While I started out expression my concerns about the emerging church movement as I prepared to attend the Midwest Emergent Conference, I realized that I probably ought to back and and describe what the emergent church is (rather than “is not”). Scot McKnight gives a more cogent analysis of the Emergent Church movement in The Covenant Companion called “The Future or Fad: A Look at the Emerging Church Movement”. For those that have no idea what I am talking about when I refer to the “emerging church”, McKnight defines it this way:

So what exactly is the emerging movement—or the emerging church as it sometimes known—all about? It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focused less on theological niceties and more on “performing” the gospel in a local setting.

“Emerging movement” is an umbrella term that refers to a group of churches, pastors, writers, and bloggers who are exploring the missional significance of culture, philosophy, and theology in a postmodern context. Within the EM is the Emergent Village organization, largely an American group identified with Brian McLaren, Ivy Beckwith, Tim Keel, Chris Seay, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, and Karen Ward, along with Andrew Jones (a.k.a., the “Tall Skinny Kiwi”) who lives in the United Kingdom. Other emerging voices of sorts would be Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, and John Burke, author of No Perfect People Allowed.

The emerging church is a threat to some folks. We have seen the accumulated of property, money, endowments, institutions, and entrepreneurs (cults of personality) as a part of church institutional growth and empire building. For the power and influence to continue, there is the need to self-perpetuate, including the need to build more seminaries and ministries. Sadly, some groups are organized in such a way as to target an enemy because they need an enemy/controversy to justify their existence. They need to flex to demonstrate their relevance. And rally the troops.

As long as bills are being paid and numbers remain up, the church won’t ask missional questions, like “how can we live out being a blessing to the world?” However, in some circles, the numbers have already started to dip and we’ve already lost a generation of folks. Facing a loss of empire, some of us have gripped harder in our efforts to maintain control. Those who can speak to that generation scares us (especially if we aren’t doing it the way we are used to). We need to be challenged but we don’t always react well when those of us with “power” are questioned.

Sorry if my use of “we” for everyone confuses anyone. I am trying to use “we” because we, all of us, are still the church. Church is like family: you have folks you claim and folks you have to claim, but you’re all still family. You just try to make the best of it and be the best family you can (sometimes you have to get your people some help). That’s the thing that, as I hear things, I don’t hear enough of: I hear plenty of the “we hate church/what the church has become” and not enough “we are the church”.

It’s easy to have criticisms in a vacuum, randomly raging to any who will listen; a lot more difficult (though more useful if you’re interested in genuine conversation) when you go to the folks you have issues with. Which brings me to the Midwest Emergent Conference (as usual, this is a long way to get to my point – Rich Vincent, my roommate for the conference, summarized things succinctly). My two major highlights centered around food:

1) Friday lunch with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Annie Gill-Bloyer, John Armstrong, me, and Rich.
2) Saturday lunch with Alise Barrymore and James King.

Sitting down with Tony Jones and getting to pick his brain really eased a lot of my concerns (though it’s always funny to watch the gap between what the “pioneers” of a movement think and how their teachings get acted out – wait, never mind, I think I just summed up all of church history) .

I had been frustrated by the emergent conversation in that I have seen a lot of talk, but not enough doing, especially in terms of racial inclusion. I get what Spencer Burke was saying when even asking the questions and having the conversation is important, but I was feeling Andre Daley when he was exclaiming why he was post-Emergent. So my second highlight/lunch came as an answer to prayer. Tony and I had a long conversation about black folks in the conversation and the next day I am introduced to Alise Barrymore and James King of The Emmaus Community. That conversation will be reverberating with me over the next few months as I continue to digest and learn from it.

Actually, that conversation pretty much sums up why I enjoyed this conference so much. It really was a chance to learn as well as have good conversations. I tend to judge conventions based on the contacts I made, and let me say that there will be a lot of work for me to do spring-boarding from this conference.

I’m still questioning and searching. We are to be culturally aware, sensitive, contextualized. None of us invent the faith; we either assent to it or we pass on it. Church still has to be about teaching, about spiritual formation, about taking communion and manifesting the kingdom – when it isn’t, it (has) failed. Just like I know that my thoughts on God aren’t absolute, but there are absolutes. We can’t know comprehensively, but we can know truly. We need to get comfortable with the idea that we’re only going to get glimpses of how things are supposed to be. And we need to keep working toward what we know we’re supposed to be.

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