I Am Emergent and I Don't Fit the Stereotype
A truth that I've repeatedly been reminded of this past year is the utter inappropriateness of basing one's identity on the belittling of others. What it means to be a man of integrity cannot be defined through the mocking of Asian culture. What it means to be a Real Man cannot be defined through the debasement of women. And what it means to be a real 21st Century Christian cannot be defined through the dismissal of the entire Western church.
So I am having a hard time with Soong-Chan Rah's and Jason Mach's article on the emerging church, even as I believe they are addressing a vital issue. Let me say up front that racial reconciliation needs to happen in the American church, and that to be healthy the church must start listening to all of its diverse members. I have no quarrel with that message in the article, I just don't understand why Emergent must be the sacrificial lamb in this conversation. After reading Rah's chapter on the emerging church in his book, The Next Evangelicalism, I, with others, wondered at the caricature he presented of the emerging conversation. In order to support his thesis that the white western captivity of the church must come to an end, he presented a picture of the emerging church as a bunch of trendy-looking white guys who deliberately exclude racial minorities. A portrayal that resembles no part of the emerging world I have ever seen. I know he was repeatedly called out on this very issue, so I had hoped that in this article there would be a bit more journalistic integrity. But once again, we have the same skewed stereotype of emergents (even as the article exclusively quotes women and racially diverse emerging leaders who are seemingly counterexamples to its thesis). This inaccurate portrayal thus functions as a straw man that can easily be attacked and dismissed as standing in the way of a more global and diverse emerging Christianity.
The article asserts:
In truth, the term "emerging church" should encompass the broader movement and development of a new face of Christianity, one that is diverse and multi-ethnic in both its global and local expressions. It should not be presented as a movement or conversation that is keyed on white middle- to upper-class suburbanites. ... If the label of the emerging church is to have a future, then the term needs to be reclaimed and disassociated from the specific brand of Emergent, and applied much more broadly to the church around the world.
Here's the thing: every emergent and emerging Christian I know would agree with most of that statement. We know this is about a broader, global movement and have no delusions that white suburbanites are its center or future. And almost all of us agree that we need to intentionally listen to and learn from a wide diversity of voices within the church. We are part of the same team, working toward the same goals. Of course, Emergent is not perfect or above critique. Of course, it isn't the sum of the emerging conversation. No one ever said it was. Emergent serves to network and resource the emerging conversation, doing its imperfect best to make this shared vision a reality. So why throw us under the bus and say we need to be kicked out of the conversation?
The thing is, I get where the small kernel of truth in their stereotypes came from. Over the past 15-20 years, the church has been attempting to make sense of the shift worldwide to a globalized, post-colonial, post-modern culture. Although this shift manifests differently around the world, we are all too interconnected to not be affected in some way. Early on in the contemporary Evangelical church these shifts were seen as simply a generational phenomenon prompting discussion on how to make church relevant to young people. Many churches jumped on the bandwagon of how to do trendy church, and yes, publishers attempted to capitalize on it as well. Since the money in the evangelical world in America historically supports charismatic white men, they became the poster children of the conversation. But as the conversation matured, others realized that what was emerging in the world was far more significant than generational trends, and so started to ask questions about how the church is held captive to culture and modern philosophies. Dialogues across diverse Christian traditions helped begin to heal wounds caused by racial and denominational divisions. These new relationships blurred boundaries both in and out of the church, making it impossible to quantify the number of churches participating in the conversation.
These emerging conversations and relationships brought renewed faith to some, but frightened or didn't go far enough for others. Many of those (including publishers) who were simply riding the waves of cultural trends jumped ship and moved on to the "next big thing." (New Calvinism anyone?) This rejection of what was emerging worldwide was often rooted in a rejection of the very outside perspectives and theologies now beginning to be heard from women, racial minorities, and Queer believers. The reality is that the conversation is diverse (imperfectly so, but diverse nonetheless), and to dismiss it as being all about hip white males is hurtful to the rest of us contributing to the conversation who don't fit that stereotype. Pretending we are invisible simply perpetuates the myth that we don't exist at all. Sure, it is still a daily struggle to be heard in a world that often clings to the vestiges of patriarchy, racism, and bigotry, but our voices are still there (even if marketplace Christianity isn't throwing money our way).
I am Emergent and I don't fit their stereotype. I am about the most un-hip person in the world. I might be white and youngish, but I am also physically handicapped and female. I am not one of the pretty people, I have no sense of style, I don't listen to cool bands, my hair is a disaster, I am awkward, introverted, and a total bookworm. In most emerging communities I have participated in, I am generally one of the youngest people there. My friends are culturally, racially, generationally, and theologically diverse and are (mostly) as uncool and imperfect misfits as myself (sorry guys, you know I love you, but it's true). But we care about what God is doing in the world. We care about justice, we care about racial reconciliation, we care about making sure we listen to previously marginalized voices (and we continue to fight for them when they are not heard). Some of my friends have never heard of the term "emerging church" and some of us volunteer our time to help support this conversation through the network of Emergent Village. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go. I know that none of us desire to cling onto power for the sake of white western culture, but we also feel no need to utterly reject and condemn that entire culture. Healing and emergence in the church will never take place through the silencing of voices we don't like or the caricaturing of those we don't understand. There are wounds dealt to persons of color, to queers, and to women that the church universal must work to heal. But if we share the same dream of healing those wounds, why can't we stop fighting amongst ourselves and figure out this emerging thing together?
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.