Aug 01 2010

Emerging, or just merging?

Category: churchharmonicminer @ 1:46 pm

I have often thought that the “emergent church” or the “emerging conversation” reminds me an awfully lot of bull sessions in the dorm of my small Christian college in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  That is, provocative questions are asked in such a way as to imply that there are no good answers to them in the existing framework, and so something completely revolutionary is required, which should start with throwing out the bums who have been ruining everything.  In a post titled Emerging Church and Mainliners, Michael Kruse makes the point that to “mainline protestants”, whose groups are mostly shrinking in numbers, the emerging “post-orthodoxy” mixed with progressive perspectives is little different from the progressive and highly “non-judgmental” political/social orientations of the traditional mainstream left:

I’ve been saying for years that much of the emerging church in is simply Evangelicals embracing Mainline Protestant theology while experiencing reticence about Mainline institutions. While “emerging church” encompasses a broad range of expression, in the Mainline world it is almost monotone. Emerging Mainliners have little dispute with Mainline theology or the deep commitment to progressive/liberal politics. It is overwhelmingly about polity, structures, and frustration with lethargy. In this sense it is not truly post-evangelical and post-Mainline … that is … it is not truly emergent. The Mainline emerging church does not embrace the emerging church movement because it is something new but precisely because it dovetails so perfectly with their theological and political persuasions. And it really borders on comical to listen to some emerging church types describe the profound new reality that is emerging when in fact they are describing what Mainliners have been saying for decades. It is new and emerging to them only because their horizons have been so small.

At the PCUSA General Assembly this month, Landon Whitsitt, a pastor in my presbytery in the Kansas City metro (Heartland Presbytery) became vice-moderator for the denomination. On some issues I’m sure Landon and I are very different (for one thing, I don’t have a PCUSA tattoo on my forearm) but read what he said in a recent interview with columnist Bill Tammeus:

What can the Emergent Church Movement, which has come primarily out of the evangelical branch of the church, teach the Mainline churches? On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is that movement?

“I don’t know if ECM can ‘teach’ the Mainline anything, frankly. I have always kind of thought that the ECM is the vehicle that is dragging Evangelicalism into a form of faith similar to what the mainline churches experience.

“I’m sure they’d disagree, but, as an example, a lot of folks in the ECM are jazzed to the hilt about Walter Brueggemann right now. I’m so sick of Bureggemann after reading countless books during seminary. They love N.T. Wright. I’m not trying to be rude when I point out that those are Mainline folks.

“What the ECM challenges us on, however, is our creativity. We’ve gotten liturgically and politically lazy. No one wants to be a part of a bureaucratic institution anymore and no one wants to spend a hour on Sunday morning sitting through what is essentially a business meeting with some hymns. But ’emergence’ in general (a la Tickle): This is nothing short of our age’s Reformation. …

Landon is spot on. I’d also add that unlike some other segments of the ECM, within the Mainline, to be emerging is close to synonymous with being politically progressive in your cultural engagement. And in that sense, it feels to me very much like the emergence of a progressive tribalism that simply is a mirror of, say, Southern Baptist conservative tribalism. Whether all this is a good thing or bad thing is all dependent on your perspective I’m sure. But I don’t think it is emergent in the sense of coming a deep reassessment of what it means to be the church and of our engagement with the world. It is the extension of Mainline sensibilities with new modes of relating.

Here’s another way to put it. Much of the “emerging church” is essentially old-style liberal/leftism, dressed up with vaguely progressive sounding Bible verses.  Most of the emergent could listen to nearly any modern mainstream sermon or teaching, and agree, while being very comfortable with the progressive political inclinations of the mainstream churches.

Sadly, most of them don’t know this, because they’re too young to know better, and despite their pretended cosmopolitanism, many of them really don’t get out much, or read widely…  all while accusing traditional evangelical churches of “preaching to the choir.”

So, I have a simple recommendation:  instead of calling themselves the “emerging church”, they should just “merge” with the mainstream churches, their natural home.  They can do their post-modern thing without guilt, and in fact with great affirmation.  They can go to church with people who share their political/social orientations, aren’t bothered especially by legal abortion-on-demand or gay marriage, think the USA is the cause of evil in the world, and are skeptical of the evangelically understood plan for salvation (the one that mainline groups all used to believe, and strongly teach, i.e., the gospel).

The whole shebang should just become the “merging church.”  That might at least keep the dying mainliners alive for another couple of decades, as they celebrate their post-orthodoxy together.