At the turn of the millennium, I (Soong-Chan) began hearing a lot about the “emerging church.” It seemed that everywhere I turned somebody was talking about the emerging church. A clear definition of the term was elusive (see “What is the Emerging Church?” by Julie Clawson, below), but the emerging church seemed to reflect ministry and theology rising out of the generation after the baby boomers. In particular, the emerging church was Western Christianity’s attempt to navigate through the context of an emerging postmodern culture.
At the time the emerging church was coming into vogue, I was pastoring a multi-ethnic, urban church plant in the Boston area. It seemed that every brochure for nearly every pastors’ conference I received featured the emerging church. As I began to attend some of those conferences, I noticed that every single speaker who claimed to represent the emerging church was a white male. A perception was forming that this was a movement and conversation occurring only in the white community.
On one occasion, I was at an emerging church conference and was told directly that non-whites were not of any significance in the emerging church. Granted, this was one specific instance, but it led to the sense that the emerging church was not a welcoming place for ethnic minorities. At another conference, on the future of the church, one of the speakers invited up a blond-haired, 29-year-old, white male, replete with cool glasses and a goatee, and pronounced him the face of the emerging church. “This guy is a great representative of the future of American Christianity.” I cringed. In terms of the public face of the emerging church, white males dominated. It seemed like the same old, same old. As per the lyrics by The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
When Professor Rah was writing The Next Evangelicalism
, he asked me (Jason) to visit a number of Web sites for emerging churches. I discovered that the large majority of emerging church leaders were white 20- to 30-year-olds. Photos showed people in trendy clothing, sporting cool hairstyles and eyewear.
Some might respond, so what? If the majority of people to whom the emerging church movement appeals are younger people of European descent and stylistic flair, then so be it. But there is a larger problem. As I continued my research, memories from my own spiritual journey flooded my mind—memories of hopelessness and longing, of wanting to believe there was something more rich and diverse about Christian life than what I was experiencing in the white suburbs. There was a great sense of joy when I found an emerging church, a place where people from various backgrounds (so I thought) were gathered in one community. I quickly became a fan of the emerging church. But now, in the midst of my research, my excitement was beginning to fade.
The emerging church, or rather this particular expression of it, was in essence no different than the church environment in which I was raised. Younger and cooler, maybe, but still the same: white, middle- to upper-class, and reflecting many of the values associated with these categories. It became apparent to me that this “emerging,” postmodern church was simply the pierced and tattooed offspring of its older, modern parents.
Missing the Big Picture
Both of us, in our own cultural contexts, began to recognize that what was being presented as the future of Christianity was only a small sliver of larger changes in the church. Left out of the spotlight, and perhaps the whole discussion, was the fact that the church is going through change on a global level, not just in the West.
Part of the problem was the conflation of terms. The emerging church is popularly presented as a catch-all concept of a generational shift at work in the West, represented by specific brands such as “Emergent” or “Emergent Village,” a group of emerging church leaders who organized, established a board, gained members, and launched a Web site. There has been disproportionate coverage given to the emerging church in the Christian media and in Christian publications, exemplified by Emergent Village’s three separate book deals with major Christian publishing companies. As noted in The Next Evangelicalism
, in 2000 only about 200 churches in the U.S. and the U.K. could be identified as emerging churches. Yet, there are more than 50 books with emerging church themes. In contrast, there are less than a handful of books written about, for example, the second-generation Asian-American ministry, which numbers as many as 700 churches.
Further complicating the confusion is the recent notion among some in the West that the emerging church as a whole has died. For example, in January 2010, one blogger wrote an obituary for the emerging church. The obituary characterized the emerging church as having made “many advances in the Christian church, including facial hair, tattoos, fair trade coffee, candles, couches in sanctuaries, distortion pedals, Rated R movie discussions, clove cigarettes and cigars, beer, and use of Macs”—a satirical characterization that nonetheless seems to hold a grain of truth.
Even in declaring the death of the emerging church, the focus is on its Western expression. The face and heart of the movement that was being lamented was defined by white Americans, furthering the perception that the emerging church is an exclusively Western, white expression. Even when the blogger notes the emerging church’s contributions to “women’s issues, conversations about sexuality, environmentalism, anti-foundationalism, [and] social justice,” they are put in the context of Western society.
Another example of the difficulty in understanding and using the term “emerging church” is found in a blog entry from December 2009. The blogger states that “history will most likely mark 2009 as the point of transition and maturation for the emerging church movement.” The “emerging church” being referred to is the Western expression of it; the history provided centers on events in Western countries and cultures. Yet found in the following sentence is this statement: “various streams within the movement will continue on for many years to come. For example, the biggest global emerging church event on the calendar for 2010 will take place in Brazil and be attended mostly by Latin Americans.” If the larger emerging church has many different streams, then why, if one of those streams supposedly has dried up, is the entire movement being declared dead?
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.
Finding a Balance
In search of some much-needed perspective, we spoke with a number of people in Emergent Village. Do they think the emerging church is truly dead? If not, where is it headed and what does it have to offer?
Emergent Village participants interviewed for this article held the same general belief: The emerging church is not, in fact, dead. Both David Park, who had previously been involved with the Metro Atlanta Emergent Cohort, and Anthony Smith, a member of the Emergent Village Coordinating Group
, noted that if anything about the emerging church has died, it is the novelty, hype, and commercialism given to it by the Christian publication industry.
“Christian [publishing] took the emerging church from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds,” Park said. On this same note, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, co-host of a Chicagoland Emergent cohort, said that “the emerging church has a number of people of privilege, and the Christian publishing companies handed the keys over to them.” According to Cynamon-Murphy, this led to difficult choices for those who wished to use the published materials as a means to effect real change. Waning attention from the media could likely prove to be beneficial, said Park, allowing more space for those in the emerging church to “get on with the work.”
Cynamon-Murphy and others, such as Julie Clawson, a member of the Emergent Village Council (Emergent’s leadership group), spoke of changes and shifts occurring within the church, both in its larger sense and in the Emergent context. “The conversation [in the larger church] is shifting from a belief-based system to a relationship-based system,” said Cynamon-Murphy, a perspective she believes matches that of Emergent and which will help bring about real transformation and liberation focused on people of all backgrounds, not only the privileged. In words echoing our own experiences, Clawson noted that the emerging church is moving away from its “initial expression as something cool, fun, and trendy,” and toward the “hard work of building its identity,” which includes recognizing the important role of missions in the life of the church.
So if the emerging church is still alive and well, what is the next milestone on its path? Many feel it’s the difficult and challenging work of racial reconciliation. Melvin Bray, a member of Emergent’s Village Council, discussed the importance of the emerging church working toward a “wider voice [being given to] a wider breadth of people.” More specifically, Bray said that the emerging church should seek to become an agent in “creating opportunities for those who, in the past, have been marginalized.” This would direct the conversation away from being centered “exclusively on a Western theological perspective,” giving those who have long been subordinated to colonialism an opportunity to “deconstruct non-helpful religious constructs” and engage God in their own ways.
In talking about racial reconciliation, Anthony Smith said there is a difference between racial diversity and racial justice. Simply including people from ethnic minorities in events and leadership positions is not enough. Doing so may create the appearance of racial diversity, but this would only be a surface solution. Instead, the emerging church must engage in what Smith calls “racial penance,” a situation in which there is true justice between people of different ethnicities, allowing the church to “get rid of Western, white captivity.” Smith said that “friendship is important for repentance” and that “isolation is dangerous.”
The way these concepts are communicated—especially to younger people—is very important, according to Alise Barrymore, pastor of a self-identified emerging church called the Emmaus Community. Specifically, said Barrymore, the emerging church needs to offer “new language and tools to help the next generations understand church.” This, combined with the drive for racial reconciliation and justice, will be crucial for ethnic churches such as the African-American church, which places high value on “negotiating the [role] of race.” Failure to effectively engage individual cultures on their own terms will result in “not translating ideas into language that is accessible and understandable to others,” said Clawson, creating a barrier to the spiritual and social progress the emerging church seeks.
An Emerging Future?
Members of the Emergent movement are optimistic that a more ethnically diverse and inclusive future is possible. Has there been a shift in Emergent? One of the major developments in recent years is that the more visible faces and names from the early years have moved on from leadership in the emerging church, and Emergent Village is now in the process of building an identity that doesn’t rely on these well-known people.
If the white male locus of Emergent is truly passé, then Emergent has the opportunity to become a part of the larger stream of the real emerging church. 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.
The burgeoning church is not just a small sliver of American Christianity; rather, it must be seen in the context of a larger movement of God on a global scale. The real emerging church is global and multi-ethnic—and a truly international, truly diverse emerging church has great potential to bring about authentic, deep revival to the world.
What is the Emerging Church?
On its face, the emerging church is a decentralized Christian movement exploring what it means to follow Jesus in our postmodern age.
Since it is cross-denominational and cross-cultural, however, expressions of emergence vary widely, encompassing everything from evangelical conversations about being culturally relevant to mainline liturgical renewals, from a rediscovery of social justice among suburban Christians to new monastic communities among the urban poor, from provocative theological discussions to postcolonial reconciliation movements (to name just a few). These culturally and theologically diverse streams are discovering together how to move the faith forward into the 21st century.
Transparently open-sourced, the emerging conversation includes anyone who desires to lend her voice to it. Emergent Village serves as one facilitator of this conversation, resourcing and connecting people to the diversity of emerging voices worldwide.
Theological discussions sparked by leaders in Emergent are often met with controversy, especially when they challenge traditional Western assumptions about the gospel and encourage the voices of women and other cultural minorities. Nevertheless, both Emergent and the broader emerging movement are navigating what it means to practice sustainable faith in a globalized and postmodern/postcolonial world, and hopefully helping the church universal better understand and celebrate the beautiful plurality of Christian expressions worldwide.
Julie Clawson is author of Everyday Justice and a member of the Emergent Village Council.
I’m glad that Soong-Chan Rah and Jason Mach have addressed some important questions about this wide-ranging phenomenon known as emerging church. I might address a few small details differently. For example, while I’m very happy to see that many new churches are being planted, for a lot of reasons I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to brand and count them as “emerging” or “emergent” or whatever. What’s far more significant to me are wide-ranging changes in outlook among a wide range of leaders in both new and existing churches—Catholic, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, evangelical, etc.
But small quibbles aside, I am in full agreement that we need to understand the real story in terms of a shift away from white, Western, male hegemony and homogeneity. For many years I’ve believed that “the postmodern conversation” in the West was one side of the coin, and the more interesting side was the postcolonial conversation arising in the global South.
To me, deep, theological conversations about the shape and purpose of the gospel, along with issues of justice—racial, environmental, and economic—are far more urgent and important than arguments about what goes on in church services, as valuable as church services are. The way forward must involve—and not just in a token way—exactly the kind of diversity Soong-Chan and Jason call for. The systemic resistance to this diversity is subtle but strong, and its consequences are sad. Many of us have been working quietly behind the scenes in hopes that this resistance can, by God’s grace, be overcome.
A Broken Church, Renewed
The church at its best is a messed-up, broken witness to the grace of God, and at its worst a suffocating, power-seeking, patriarchal, and divisive body. If the emerging church reflects some of the values of the “capitalist entertainment empire,” it also has generated an enormous amount of creativity and freedom to question structures and texts and power. Certainly other communities all over the world are generating similar freedoms.
The church I serve is diverse. The congregants are old and young, from Catholic, mainline, fundamentalist, and atheist backgrounds, gay, straight, working class, intellectual, Buddhist, Quaker, drunks, in recovery, artists, and musicians. They are square, circular, zigzag, hyphenated, and occasionally Republican.
Despite these differences, there is a commonality to the people who end up at our church as well. They are usually not wealthy. They tend to question a lot about mainstream society. They are often of European descent. I would not hold us up as the face of the future of American Christianity. That would be silly, scary, and boring. Every manifestation of the church reflects some of the aberrations and illusions of the culture it lives in. Hopefully it also reflects the entirely life-giving love of God.
Debbie Blue is pastor of House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota and author of Sensual Orthodoxy .