I Didn't Learn About the Emerging Church From White Males
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This post is for a synchroblog that asks the question, "what is emerging in the church?" This effort is partially in response to the recent Sojourners article by Soong-Chan Rah and Jason Mach alleging that the emerging church conversation has largely been dominated by white male hipsters, and partially just to celebrate all the good things that are in fact emerging. So even though I am a white male (though decidedly un-hip), I did want to contribute and speak to my own experience of being led into this conversation through non-white, non-western voices in the first place.
About 10 years ago I had just finished a degree in philosophy at Wheaton College (where I had my first introduction to postmodernism) and was working toward a Masters in Missions and Intercultural Studies. While I was already beginning to rethink my theology and worldview thanks to those postmodern philosophers, I hadn't yet even heard of names like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt or whoever. Instead what I was encountering through my grad studies were the myriad of ways that Christianity gets expressed in indigenous cultures around the world, whether through African Independent Churches, South Asian Christianity, Native American churches, etc. It was here that I began to realize how diverse the Christian faith really is, and how culturally bound my own versions of faith were as well. Thankfully through this exposure I was also introduced to the concept of contextualization -- the idea that just as God chose to incarnate God's self in a particular first-century Jewish culture in order to communicate the gospel to the people of that time and place, so can the gospel be incarnated and re-contextualized to many other times and places and cultures. The fact that African Christians were able to take the gospel and adapt it to their indigenous cultures, or that Native American Christians were able to be Christians and yet still integrate their ancient customs and religious practices, inspired me to think that maybe, just maybe, we white Western Christians could also have the freedom to adapt our received traditions and belief systems to our own emerging postmodern culture.
More than this, it was missiologists working outside of the West, people like David Bosch or Lesslie Newbign, and especially Latin American theologians like C. Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar, who first developed the "missional" ideas that have become so significant among American emerging church folks as well now. The idea of a holistic, integral mission that addresses both spiritual and physical needs, and doesn't divide the world into "sending" and "receiving" nations, or even into "the church" and "the world," but sees the whole of life as a mission and the kingdom of God at work in the whole world, is something that was being talked about outside the West decades before some of us here in the States started reading about it and being inspired by it.
In other words, for me at least, this idea of creating an emerging, missional, postmodern faith didn't come by listening to a bunch of hip white males, it came by listening to the voices of the non-Western world and learning from their examples. They led the way. Whatever is emerging among white American Christians was pioneered by them first, and we owe them a debt.
This is true for me, and I know it is true for many of the well-known white male emergent leaders as well. Ask most of them who inspired many of these ideas for them in the first place and they'll often point to these same non-Western voices. None of us are trying to claim credit for it, or trying to say that we invented it. We're simply trying to learn from whomever we can, and follow the lead of these global pioneers as the church continues to emerge here in our own context as well.
This is what I see emerging in the church both globally and locally, and it gives me hope.
Mike Clawson is a pastor, a father, and lives in Austin, TX, with his family. He is currently a student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and will start PhD studies in Church History at Baylor University in the fall. He blogs at emergingpensees.blogspot.com.