Chorus or Cacophony?

Religious groups are continuously negotiating between what they perceive as fixed elements of their religious character and a myriad of dynamic pressures—including periods of rapid social change, competing or even hostile groups and ideas, and from time to time fundamental philosophical shifts in how we interpret and understand the world.

An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, a collection of essays from 27 different Christian voices, provides a polyphonic snapshot of one such ongoing conversation—that of the emerging church—concerned with our current period of cultural, theological, and philosophical change. "Church" is actually a misnomer, as this group lacks a unifying systematic theology or denominational identifier. Those most often identified with the emerging church, including many of this book's writers, prefer other descriptors, such as the emerging conversation, a generative friendship, a missional collaboration, or the pilgrimage on the Jesus Way. More poetically, one contributor sees the emerging conversation as "an unfolding piece of artwork"; it is "a studio for sketching, a place of freedom and divergence."

Despite differences over self-identification, backgrounds, ecclesiologies, and theologies, contributors such as Brian McLaren, Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Rodolpho Carrasco, and Sally Morgenthaler, among others, share an underlying belief that the world we live in has fundamentally changed and that these changes have profound implications for the "Christ-message" and our understanding of "the present agenda of God in this world." These emerging conversationalists illustrate the myriad ways in which Christians are forging what it means to be faithful in the 21st century.

For those new to this conversation, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope is a good place to start. It's a worthy primer, varied and accessible. Few essays exceed 10 pages, so the thematic and stylistic scenery passing by the window changes regularly. And together the essays weave a textured tapestry (although not an exhaustive one) of how the emerging conversation is unfolding around the United States.

ONE PREVAILING CRITIQUE of the emerging conversation is the homogeneity of its participants, so the impressive ethnic, theological, and gender diversity among the book's writers might not be representative of the emerging church as it exists on the ground. Nonetheless, the book is a noble attempt to envision what the conversation might become. And given the work's varied terrain, there is likely something for everyone.

Some essays are personal, recounting personal journeys toward and away from the Jesus Way, and some are theological and philosophical explorations of the swirling changes around us and how the church might respond. Others are practical, touching on human issues such as parenting and sexuality, and some are missional, exploring social justice, oppression, and poverty in ways that inform what it might look like to see the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. There are many current, recovering, or former evangelicals for whom the emerging conversation is most known, but there are also mainline and Catholic voices.

The future of the emerging conversation remains to be seen. Is it the hope of the 21st-century church or, as one critic has said, simply an asterisk on the landscape of American church growth? Will it mirror Methodism, which began as a nonsectarian grassroots revival movement and within 60 years had institutionalized and become one of the largest denominations in America? Or will it be like evangelicalism, a cross-denominational identifier that represents adherence to certain core affirmations? Or will it be like most new religious movements, which fail to survive? And how will the emerging church's lack of a central voice and apparent aversion to both institutionalization and doctrine affect its future?

Many questions remain unanswered, but I have the feeling from The Emergent Manifesto of Hope that most of these conversationalists might not be too bothered by that fact. At its heart, it seems that the emerging conversation is more concerned about raising questions with sincerity and force than arriving at simplistic or dogmatic answers.

One of the volume's editors describes the emerging conversation as "a choir with no conductor." An Emergent Manifesto of Hope gently invites us to see for ourselves if this approach has yielded a melodious chorus or a cacophony.

Bob Francis is organizing and policy assistant at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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