For about a year now, I’ve been hearing stories about this thing called “the emerging church”. I think I first came across the term in an article when I was flipping through an issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review. I remember reading the article, but I don’t think I really paid much attention to it – at least not until a friend, who was on her way to an emerging church conference, sent the article my way for a second time. So I read it again.
To be honest, I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
My impression was that there was some group of Mennonites somewhere who were trying to live an authentically Christian life, trying to keep Christianity relevant to the 21st century, and forming ties with other Christians from outside the Mennonite tradition in order that they could learn from one another. And I thought, “Good for them. Whenever people are finding relevant and vibrant ways to be Christ-like, I’m all for that.”
But I didn’t really understand why they thought that they (either these mennos or the others with whom they were forming ties) needed some new catchy label like “emerging” (and believe me – “emerging” is not the only catchy word being thrown around).
So my friend lent me a DVD of Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, speaking about the emerging church. I must say that I was very favorably impressed, and it was my intent to blog about it. Alas – it has now been too many months, and I can’t remember enough to say anything substantial. However, it was my overall impression that Fr. Rohr did a good job of emphasizing how the Church tends to bicker over relatively minor things, while tending to neglect the important commonalities that we share. He indicated that the emerging church isn’t trying to create new structures, but rather to reform the existing ones. In addition, he developed some creative ways to go about doing Church that would redirect the emphasis toward our shared values.
This kind of speech is edifying, and I always appreciate those who can articulate a clear vision for grace-filled Christian community and mission. And yet there was still a disconnect for me – what was special about what he was saying that it deserved to be a movement?
On a whim, I decided to purchase A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren* from the Laurelville gift shop one weekend when my family was there. Brian begins the book by describing the many reasons why you shouldn’t read it. This seemed to confirm my less charitable perceptions – that these “emergents” just liked to hear themselves talk. Then Ordinary Spouse pointed out that I write the same way…
* I hope to provide a more in-depth look at this book sometime in the future. However, given the speed at which I move, I was concerned that it might take me a year or two to get around to it. So I decided to mention it in this post first.
So I slogged through that introductory chapter and made my way through the rest of the book. Brian lays out a vision for what this emerging church might look like, and I began to understand the significance of the emerging movement…
(We interrupt this discourse to bring you a disclaimer. The author of this post has read one book by Brian McLaren and started to read a second. He has managed to read snippets of other authors who are considered to be “emerging”. In addition, he has no first-hand experience with communities that identify themselves as “emerging”. Furthermore, any halfway motivated person can see from a quick Google search that the range of ideas about what constitutes “emerging” is fairly broad. Therefore, to claim to speak with any authority on the “significance of the emerging movement” is completely uncalled for. It’s unwise. It’s misguided. It’s just plain stupid. Here goes anyway.)
It seems to me that the emerging church is motivated by a desire to get back to the person of Christ, to understand who he is and how his message is relevant today, and then to live into that message. And that’s important – to really apply the way of Christ to one’s approach to life now. In some ways, this is a very Anabaptist thing to do. Anabaptists have always been about the centrality of Christ. And so, this explains some my initial ambivalence about the whole movement. Parts of this thinking is not new to me. In fact, it comes naturally, as I believe it would to people who value historical Anabaptism and who are wondering about its relevance for the future. And as I’ve been reading, I’ve learned that this kind of thinking has brought about many connections between Anabaptists and the broader Church – the kind of connections that were mentioned in that Mennonite Weekly Review article. Furthermore, this focus on living out the way of Christ is (as I understand it) a shift of sorts for some other Christian groups.
But if I’ve come to understand my initial, blasé reaction to the emerging church, I’ve also begun to understand how it informs (or reforms) my own Christian journey. I talked above about a way of “thinking”. In his book, Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren talks about “framing stories”. These are the narratives that shape how we see the world, how we interact with it, and how we make decisions. And one area where my framing story was incomplete and providing a mixed message was in my approach to scripture. I was (and still am) influenced by a number of traditions: Anabaptist, of course, but probably also traditional protestant (whatever that is), evangelical, charismatic/pentecostal, and maybe even fundamentalist. And it had become clear to me that these traditions weren’t always in agreement, weren’t always right, and were leaving me with an inconsistent approach to understanding the Bible. It didn’t help that this wasn’t a topic that I thought much about during my time at Goshen (which is where I might have received some good guidance on the matter – but that’s another story).
Recently, I had come to a more comfortable place in my biblical understanding – one that averted a faith crisis of sorts – but it was still an uneven understanding. However, when I read A Generous Orthodoxy, I encountered a subtle shift in interpretation, but one that (I think) will be life-giving and more holistic than my previous approaches.
Since I want to blog about that separately, I’m going to leave you wondering what I’m talking about. Let me only say that a slight change in framing story or a small shift in the way that I read the Bible seems to have enormous possibilities for living out my life. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been working on a puzzle. I have all of the needed pieces in front of me, but all of a sudden I think I might have some sense of how to fit the pieces together to solve it. Cool!
Another personal benefit is a new sense of the unity of the Church. I’ve already mentioned that others were building these bridges, but my reaction was rather “ho-hum”. Now, however, I’m also getting excited by these ties. Similarly, I gaining a greater appreciation for the strengths of various traditions. (This was a major emphasis of A Generous Orthodoxy.)
One final benefit that I’ll mention is the encouragement that I receive when I witness how the emerging church lives out the way of Christ. It is a generous way, filled with grace, humility, and hospitality. There is so much for me to learn from it.
As an example, I’d like to point you to a story of someone who was denied communion when she went to visit her parents’ congregation. The details aren’t given. But look how her own congregation (a Lutheran group) responds when she returns home. Now – my understanding of Lutheran eucharistic theology is that they consider the elements to contain the Real Presence of Christ. This isn’t my understanding, but frankly, my understanding isn’t the point. The point is that this person’s community saw a need and responded with grace. And that is beautiful no matter what your theology is. That’s the kind of Church that I want to be a part of.