Why the Emerging Church Still Matters (part 1)

In my last post, I gave a brief review of an excellent book, and I made the statement that I’m not ready to jump off the emerging church bandwagon. I still have my areas of ambivalence, and those are probably worth a few posts on their own. But I do think that, while the emerging church may not be the flavor of the month with the hipsters any more, to pronounce the death of it would be premature.

First, a word of clarification. When I use the term emerging church, I do so in a broad, inclusive sense. There was a time when one of our buzzwords was “conversations,” and I liked the fact that a wide variety of voices were heard – including (especially?) the voices of those I disagreed with. The way I see it, if you want to talk about the emerging church, congratulations, you’re a member of it. Yes, that means that I would include people who write poorly researched and poorly argued books about it, and people who might know what they’re talking about and don’t want to be a part of it, and people who used to be emerging church poster children but tried to take their ball and go home a long time ago (setting off stink bombs on the way out the door). It may seem foolish to include some of those folks, but I happen to believe that their critiques have made the emerging church better, if for no other reason than they’ve given people some things to blog about.

I’m not turning in my emerging church membership card, and here’s one reason why: over the weekend, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times, written by Eric Weiner, which talked a lot about the non-church going people out and about in society that don’t want to give up on God, but are terribly turned off by religion.

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

Make no mistake, the emerging church has its share of talkers and True Believers, but we genuinely are interested in conversations. I recently read a PhD thesis which was all about the inclusive, conversational nature of the emerging church, and its ability to bring people of different viewpoints together. And it’s not just that we’ve had conversations, but that they have been, and continue to be characterized by hospitality, generosity, and kindness . . . even when we get riled up. This, of course, requires us to listen to each other – it’s a discipline that sometimes comes easily, and sometimes doesn’t.

Some other very important points are made, but one of my favorites is:

 . . . there is very little “good religion” out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

Precious few of our religious leaders laugh. They shout. God is not an exclamation point, though. He is, at his best, a semicolon, connecting people, and generating what Aldous Huxley called “human grace.” Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of this.

My experience of the emerging church has been one filled with laughter, creativity, and parties. In fact, a lot of us found tremendous freedom in simply giving ourselves permission to do that together. We have laughed mainly at ourselves, for there are few things funnier than comparing old religious skeletons in our closets. The late, great Soularize events were dubbed “learning parties.” The emerging church replaced theological conversations held over buckets of fried chicken and casseroles with theological conversations held over cigars, scotch, and microbrew. The last time I checked, those kinds of gatherings are still going on, and don’t show any signs of disappearing, whether we’re naming them with the emerging church brand or not.

Steve Knight has also written some reflections on this op-ed along these lines. They’re good thoughts that I agree with. Simply put, I think the emerging church is one viable answer to some of Eric Weiner’s quality observations.

I’ve got another, perhaps more controversial argument in favor of the ongoing nature of the emerging church. But I’ll post that separately, and we’ll see if we can’t have some conversation about it.

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  1. I’m looking forward to part 2! Thanks for the link love, Steve.

  2. Well said Steve. Well said. Also looking forward to part 2 (not to mention actually meeting you in person – with some fried chicken or a cigar – one of these days!).

  3. Well written and a good conversation piece.

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