I’ve been reading the deeply felt responses to Nick Fiedler’s post describing his disappointment with the Emergent movement. The posts run the gamut from those who lament its loss of outsider status to those who resent the idea that some folks are making a living off of their participation in the movement. One post accuses ‘traditionalists’ of glee that the Emergents are struggling. That's particularly untrue and unfair, as you're about to see.
If you’ve been reading these pages recently you’ll know that I don’t exactly fit the Emergent profile. First off, I’m 46 years old, but that’s not the half of it. I’m also an historian of evangelicalism and a PCUSA-ordained minister in a fairly traditional church. I still believe that denominations, as problematic as they can be, will end up playing a crucial role in the partnership to revive and reform the Christian faith. See what I mean? I’m not really the most likely participant/defender of Emergent-ness.
Maybe that puts me in a helpful place to comment on the current state of things.
It might make good sense to feel a letdown after the heady progress Emergents have made over the past few years. Stale models of both doctrine and church have been challenged—mostly effectively—and some real change has come out of that. New people have come to faith and many who had been wounded by the church rediscovered a faith home. Some of us who were still in the center of traditional church life were provoked (in the best sense of the term) to rethink our understanding of what it meant to be Christians. I participated in a small group of 40-somethings that wrestled with Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy for almost a year, and it was enormously valuable for us…even when we disagreed.
All of those represent astounding achievements in an era marked by secularization and faithlessness.
But historians tend to see movements like this in a different light. Most of us have expected some sort of leveling off or decline in the trajectory of the Emergent movement, and many of us have hoped that the maturing of the project wouldn’t become its downfall. The best of the correctives in church history have started as parallel movements that end up realigning with the broader body of Christ. That process of re-merging has given the church its energy and seasoning at various crucial times since the Reformation.
Even if we just focus on a handful of examples from the last century or so, we can see how this has happened. (Now please note that these are quantitative examples, not qualitative ones.) Separatist fundamentalists evolved into the new evangelical intellectual resurgence of the mid-20th century (the source of places like Fuller Seminary). The Pentecostal and charismatic movements—which also saw themselves as being a separate, new way of ‘doing’ church, folded back into the broader church movement and changed, well, just about everything. More recently the Willow Creek experiment, which for a while tried to conform existing churches to its model, ended up becoming more flexible and malleable and usable, resulting in a far more lasting influence on the broader church.
If the Emergent movement as we have seen and experienced it over the past few years doesn’t turn out to change everything, and remake the Christian Way from scratch, it will still be credited with having had an enormous impact on the church. If it folds back into the broader church, while retaining its transformative perspective on the way churches operate, would that really be so bad?
What the Emergent movement has happily avoided is the unchecked, unmanaged expansion and hubris that killed off Promise Keepers (remember them?). For the complaints I’m reading from Emergents about people in the movement making a living at it, money has not become either the driving force or life blood of Emergent ministry. That’s a great thing. That’s a sign of wisdom and prudence and maturity (sorry for the traditionalist litany there) that PK and other flashes in the pan never had.
Mostly what I want to say—from my place on the margins of it all—comes from my own admiration and appreciation for what Emergent thinkers and leaders have given to the broader church.
I’m not disappointed at all.
As I was growing up the concern among younger visionaries was how to escape from the materialism of Boomer Christianity and into a more authentic expression of Jesus-following. We took that into our lives and ministries—traditional and not—to the benefit of the broader church.
The Emergent movement is poised to do the very same thing.
Some will choose to participate in established churches, but will bring new energy and critical change to those bodies. Some will remain outside the mainstream and provide important correctives to the rest of us as we stumble along in churches that may or may not want to grow out of their calcified state. Either way, the influence of the Emergent project—whether in doctrine or ecclesiology or ethics—is here to stay.
As one who has benefitted from Emergent influence (even when I’ve been the target of its critique), I’m far from disappointed with what it has become.
Mostly, I’m just grateful.