Experiencing Emergent

Shane Rosenthal
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jul/Aug 2005

It started out a cold and snowy day in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was heading to the airport, where I was to fly to a significantly warmer San Diego in order to attend an Emergent Church convention. Once there, my job was to secure an interview with Brian McLaren, attend various seminars, and talk to attendees-all with one goal in mind. Try to figure out what the Emergent Church movement was all about.

Once I arrived at my hotel and received the conference packet, I quickly thumbed through the list of conference functions. There were numerous live music events, worship experiences (including communion), and late night discussions groups I could attend. McLaren was to give a number of lectures and there were multisensory "learning communities" to experience. Some of the seminars that I could choose from included:

"No more top down: New ways of leading" by Dave Fleming
"Karl Barth for the emerging church" by John Franke
"Women pastors: Why or why not?" by Stan Grenz
"Reckoning with intuition: developing and fostering the creative impulse in self and community" by Tim Keel
"Sacred space: Creating prayer stations and interactive art worship experiences" by Dan Kimball
"Public worship as spiritual formation" by Brian McLaren
"We speak art: Rituals and celebra-tions from a neo-monastic postmodern tribe" by Rachelle Mee-Chapman
"Candle meltdown: What comes after wrought-iron, euro-icons, and Van Gogh mouse pads" by Sally Morgenthaler
"Theology for a new world-Reconstruction in theology" by Doug Pagitt
"What the bleep do we know!?" by Chris Seay
"Text in a TXT world: Postmodern communication" by Steve Taylor
"nu Monasticism" by Karen Ward
"Physiology of spirituality-Making your body your ally in spiritual formation" by Dieter Zander

The average conference attendee appeared to be a suburban white male, between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of course, he was a little more hip than average, often seen sporting a tattoo, body piercing, and mustache-free goatee. I asked some of these individuals what they thought of the Emergent movement. One, Andrew, told me, "The thing that sold me on it was the opening line to their advertisement, 'Re-thinking church,' and it's just been something … I don't know … I see a lot of tools in my toolbox that aren't broken, but they're not being used." He went on to say that he didn't think the Church was failing in everything, but that before too long "the world is going to keep breaking and we're not going to be able to fix it at all." A youth pastor told me he was attending because he wanted to get a handle on the changing culture. "The kids in my youth group are interacting differently than they did five years ago, and so for me, I'm just trying to get a handle on where they're going so I can help the timeless message become relevant to them."

The convention music was tribal and suburban, eclectic with a tendency toward techno pop. At our first orientation meeting, we were shown a series of sarcastic videos of spoof auditions for the would-be worship leaders for the convention. In one clip, Tim (a slightly effeminate man) said, "I think I should be the next Emergent Idol, because I like to take music that's right from our culture and transcend it into worship." Another simply began singing, "I'm proud to be a Republican, because at least I know I'm free …." Also included were spoofs of Keith Green, Veggie Tales characters, and a worship leader who changed the lyrics of a popular Neil Diamond song to, "We're coming to you Lord … Today!"

At the end of the first meeting, we were divided into groups and brought to our own particular learning communities. In these smaller, more intimate settings about one hundred to two hundred of us were encouraged not merely to listen, but also to interact with the discussion. The room I entered had the smell of burning incense and a collection of modern art. Once the technician got the bugs out of the system, we were also treated to a projection on the wall of looping images, like a finger scrolling down the page of the Bible. In this seminar, Brian McLaren and Stanley Grenz led a postmodern discussion of biblical interpretation. Before our speakers began, we were encouraged to question whatever they said. "There is a tendency," we were reminded again and again, "for all speakers to condense a life of messiness into a clean one hour presentation." After McLaren and Grenz finished their discussion, we split up into groups of three to five people for discussion and interaction. We were also encouraged not merely to take notes on the presentation but to draw pictures on pieces of cloth that were provided. At the end of the seminar, these cloth tiles were to be glued on to a big board at the back of the room.

Arts and crafts, projectors, and small group share sessions? I asked Sally Morganthaler, a popular author and worship leader in Emergent circles, about the use of these learning techniques that reminded me of elementary school. She said, "Yes, it's a constructivist methodology, so we're utilizing some of the newer adult learning theory that's out there now." I asked whether she would encourage this interactive approach for churches and she replied, "I think it could be a really exciting way to go about things. But it would be a challenge because of people's expectations."

After leaving the learning community, I decided to check out the prayer chapel upstairs. In it there were various prayer stations each with an eclectic assortment of art, photos, or symbols of some kind. Smelling strongly of incense and with "photo darkroom" mood lighting, the room's center feature was a station at which visitors were encouraged to "paint or sculpt a prayer." I also had the option of signing up with a spiritual director who would help me "explore [my] own relationship to God."

The next morning I walked past the Emergent yoga class to check out the labyrinth where visitors, guided along a mazelike path, listen to soft, comforting music while pondering encouraging words and suggestions for prayer. A convention representative told me that this was an ancient prayer practice that grew out of medieval pilgrimages. "At one point people stopped taking pilgrimages because it was too costly, so the cathedrals decided to build these labyrinths in their basements so the people could do the same type of journey in an enclosed space and without the expense." I caught up with two Southern Baptist pastors on their way out of the labyrinth who told me that they were very moved by the experience. "It was very powerful," one told me. "This forced me to walk through my life, to empty myself out, and to really reflect on those things that are important to draw closer to God." When I asked if this was something they might consider doing in the context of their own churches, the other pastor replied, "We were just talking about that. We're going to try and figure out how to get the CDs or whatever and just do that for a service. We'll send the kids off somewhere and take an hour or two without anything else except that."

The Seminar That Explained It All … Almost

Thus far all my experiences were very interesting, but I still needed to get a grip on exactly what the movement was. Tim Keel's seminar, "What Is Emergent?" seemed to be the answer I was looking for. Keel is pastor of Jacob's Well, an Emergent church in Kansas City, Missouri. There were only about twenty of us who needed to know, so Keel pulled up a stool and began by asking why each of us had come to the Emergent convention. Juliana spoke up first, "I grew out of Evangelicalism and now I'm a die-hard Episcopalian who loves ritual, smells and bells, and whatever." She commented that in her view, the Emergent movement appeared to grow out of youth ministry, which she could see in all the "glitzy displays and that fact that everyone has cool hair." "But beyond that," Juliana inquired probingly, "is there something from the inside that can define what the Emergent church is? I mean, it has to be more than cool hair and deconstructing texts."

Jeff told the group that he leads worship for a college-age Sunday night meeting at his community church. "I'm in that age group where I feel like I don't fit in with the real traditional mindset and I'm not really sure what the Emergent mindset is, so I feel like I'm in between the two, trying to figure it all out." Jeff felt he would be better prepared to lead his group in worship if he had a "better handle on what Emergent meant. I know it's not just a bunch of cool songs and candles."

Jim, a self-described fundamentalist Baptist, came to the conference in order to help him "reach the thirty-eight thousand postmodern students" at the university near his home. He asked, "How do I take the belief-that I don't want to compromise-and pair it with a method that is Emergent (if I knew what that was)? That's why I'm here."

Will, who was raised Seventh-day Adventist, came to check out the conference because he kept hearing about Emergent from the college group at his six-thousand-member nondenominational church. "It's a pretty happening church … I mean they're headed to a huge building and they're gearing up for television eventually." Ultimately however, Will didn't find solace amidst all this success, "It's becoming more like a show, so I'm wondering what else is out there. I've been feeling for a long time that something is wrong … you know, that our church is missing a real sense of community. We just don't have that. We're all disjointed. We're this huge church that comes together for an hour on Sunday, and that's it!"

Tim Keel followed these testimonies with his own autobiography. He had a broad ecclesial background: United Methodist, Southern Baptist, and evangelical Presbyterian. He interned at "a PC (USA) college ministry thing," served in an Episcopal youth group, and spent a lot of time in parachurch ministries such as Young Life. Keel became a follower of Christ his senior year in high school, a time when his family life was totally falling apart. "The church really rescued me … it became my family and now I have a passion for the body of Christ." In college he began a completely student-led campus ministry, "Icthus Christian Fellowship," which was both "messy and together" and gave him a "profound experience of Christianity." The difficult thing for Keel was watching this wonderful community of faith dissolve as people graduated and moved out into a "segmented and disintegrated suburban American life." He was greatly troubled when he observed friend after friend functionally lose their faith as God became less and less significant in their lives.

Keel eventually went to seminary and was involved in a number of church plants, but all of this was unsatisfying. Something just wasn't right. He was continually haunted by the question, "Are the best years of my life in Christ behind me?" At about this time Keel was involved a Willow Creek model church plant that was trying to reach out to a GenX demographic. But, he said, "At one point they realized that it was not really a GenX deal. There was a massive shift happening in our culture, and GenX was merely the vanguard of that shift. It was the first generation that was postmodern, post-Christian, post-Enlightenment . . . all these things." Keel felt that they were putting words to his experience.

Later, Keel connected with a youth pastor by the name of Doug Paggit, who was beginning to assemble a group of young leaders under the umbrella of Leadership Network. "Doug began to gather all the rabble-rousers from around the country to create spaces for us to talk about what we were experiencing and recognizing culturally, and how the Church might begin to respond to some of these changes." According to Keel, the Emergent movement basically came out of that early network. "We began to really believe that it wasn't just an issue of methodology that needed to be reexamined, but there were deep theological issues at stake." So, as he explained, many of these young leaders began reexamining their understanding of salvation, the gospel, and the Church and her mission because "all these things had been deeply and profoundly misshaped by modern Enlightenment sensibilities." In short, Emergent was a large community of people from various denominations and church traditions attempting to discover authentic forms of Christian faith amidst the ruins of the church in the postmodern world.

Keel, who sports his own ponytail and cool beard, told Juliana, "I understand the comments about the hair and stuff but it is so not about that. It's just an easy characterization, because I defy you to hang around here and go toe to toe theologically with anybody in this community, and you'll be amazed at how much it's not about surface stuff." The reason people are so image conscious, Keel argued, "is because most of the people in this community are trying to be missional since we live in a culture where we are visually driven."

Authentic or Eclectic?

At one point in the conversation I asked Keel if the Emergent movement could be labeled "eclectic" since it picks and chooses what it determines to be authentic Christian truth or practice from sometimes competing faith traditions. And, if this was correct, could the movement be criticized for merely skimming the surface of all traditions rather than getting to know any of them well? He thought about it for a moment, and gave a lengthy response:

This is something we are dealing with in our community at Jacob's Well. Because people call and they want our doctrinal statement and I refuse to give one out. You know why? Because it is shorthand. It says, Oh, that's the kind of community you are. And people in our culture today shop church. In other words, we're so concerned with orthodoxy [right belief] that we don't care about orthopraxy [right practice]. And there's a way of being a Christian that I think is destructive: you can have all the right beliefs in your head, you can have all the right information, but if your life is shaped by twenty-first-century American materialism and the church becomes one more thing that you consume, then what the hell does it matter what you believe if there's no community that shapes your salvation? And so I tell people, come to our church, spend six months with us, and then you tell us what we believe.

Dallas Willard has this great quote where he says that doctrinal statements are prepared by people who are worried about something. So what if I'm not worried about anything? Not that there aren't things to worry about, but I trust in Christ's presence and the Spirit's animating life in the context of our community. I think you would find that we hold to a generous orthodoxy and that everybody can affirm the Apostle's Creed. All these theological traditions are wonderful, but were each born in a context. And what if we felt like we are finding ourselves in a context that might birth a tradition?

Keel then returned to his personal life journey, outlining his background in the fine arts, his intuitive personality, and his interest in "spiritual formation in the life of the soul." He appeared to be quite frustrated with the fact that Richard Foster and Dallas Willard were the only two authors he could find who adequately treated the subject. He also told a story about feeling wiped out a few years back from church planting work, and heading to a Benedictine monastery to "get a room and die for a week … to recover from the burnout." At this monastery, Tim developed a strong relationship with a monk who has since become his "spiritual director" and one of his very close friends. That mentoring relationship, says Keel, "has had an enormous impact on our community."

Keel returned to my question and said, "Not only do we have fifty years of evangelical history or 450 years of Protestant history, I get the whole church. And I think part of what forms Emergent is this sense that we've got this rich tapestry of experience to draw on." He agreed that it was a bad idea to misrepresent or prostitute a tradition for one's own use, but he also argued that Protestantism greatly limited our spiritual experience because, in his words, the tradition largely says, "I define who I am by who I'm not. Our belief is simply what we do. We can describe what we do, but the reality of what we believe is simply what we do. So, if you want to know what we believe, come to Jacob's Well. Come see how we live our lives."

Did I Miss the Answer?

As I looked around the room I got the sense that many, if not most, of those present still couldn't really grasp what Emergent meant. One person inquired, "Is there a denomination that you are close to, so I can understand what you are. It's hard because I don't feel like there's a foundation. Is that the point, there isn't a foundation?" Keel responded with his own question, "What if Emergent is a way of being? It's a posture. It's an attitude. What if it's a conversation rather than an organization or a set of beliefs?" He referenced the writings of philosopher Michael Polanyi and said, "I think there is a kind of knowing that's really a gut level knowing. I just know it. I just feel it. There are times when I just go, 'man the Spirit of God is here,' and I don't know why."

Someone in the back asked a practical question, "What would an Emergent community look like?" One woman, Lacy, who attends Keel's church, responded to this question while knitting something: "I used to go to Ecclesia church in Houston for a while, and my experience there was totally different and incomparable to my experience at Jacob's Well. And having visited Solomon's Porch once, again it's incomparable." She also suggested that though there are certain shared values among Emergent church congregations, the fleshing out of those values and rules of faith looks very different in Houston than it does in Kansas City or Minneapolis.

This led Keel to talk about his church. "I had to start Jacob's Well because I couldn't find a church where I could connect to God. I wasn't trying to reach anybody, I was trying to find a place where I could actually have an experience of God and live my life in a way that I was actually being fed. And guess what? I found out that other people had the same problem." He then spoke candidly about his idea that evangelism was a myth, and that we're not really called to go reach or target people. "I don't believe in any of those things, because what it does is make the church about something. I believe that what we are called to do is have an experience of God, an experience of Christ that at a primary level shapes our identity as beloved."

Someone in the group who was more familiar with Emergent spoke up and directed his comments to the people who may not have had their questions answered, "Some of you are asking a lot of the questions that I've asked in previous years. And at first I thought 'will I ever get a straight answer?' But there is no straight answer. Emergent is something you discover and you'll know it when you discover it." Keel paused and agreed saying, "It makes it a little more mystical than I would say it, but yeah." When Lacy added, "This can't be mastered," Keel agreed again and said, "No it can't. So any church that is being animated by God's Spirit ought to be freakin' messy."

It was nearly midnight before the group finally disbanded. As I made my way back to my hotel room, I realized that the discussion had been very instructive. Not only did I get a better sense of what drew people to Emergent, but the conversation gave me some insight into the thinking process of those wishing to start an Emergent church. The issue is much deeper than hairstyle, as Keel indicated, or even worship preferences. It also goes deeper than appreciating postmodernism. At its heart, the Emergent movement is about failure. Having hitched their wagons to modernism in so many ways, many evangelical churches have failed to provide a place of solace and transcendence in the midst of a dying culture. Now with the waves of postmodernism crashing upon our shores, the failure of churches still clinging to modernist assumptions are increasingly apparent, especially to the next generation. Having failed to define ourselves by Christ's story, our churches look like entertainment centers, self-help seminars, political rallies, and Kiwanis clubs. Most of us do not really know the person in the pew sitting next to us, and we have failed to live noticeably different lives than those of our non-Christian neighbors.

The Emergent convention was not merely about diagnosing the ills of the contemporary church, it also pointed us to various treatments and therapies. This is where I fear the Emergent Church fails to give us much lasting benefit. Labyrinths, yoga, and prayer sculpting (to give only a few examples) might make us feel better for the moment, but we need medicine of a stronger sort. Burning incense might help cover up the dank smell of a church facility, but it will not ultimately lead to reformation. Without question, recovering a lost sense of community is a grand idea, but if the community itself is not about something other than itself, it will not last. We need Christ: We need to be caught up in his story, rather than our own. We need to better understand his Word and his mission for the church, not our own Cain-like attempts at spirituality. While "re-thinking church" can sometimes be a step toward ecclesiastic renewal, it should never be forgotten that it has just as often been the root cause of schism and heresy. Truly authentic Christian faith and practice is not recovered by an examination of what other churches have done, whether ancient or modern. It can only be recovered if we once again focus our attention and submit to Scripture as our norm for faith and practice.

After returning from the convention to my home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I thought about many of the Christians who reside in my area. Here community and spiritual discipline are among some of the top concerns, along with living lives of authenticity, and utter frugality. These Christians have always rejected the excesses of American consumerism and simpy live off the land God gave them. Though it's not quite emergent, given the fact that this community emerged some five hundred years ago, it should also be mentioned that Amish men have really cool facial hair.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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