Two Mennonite Brethren explore the Emerging Church movement

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Discussing the emerging church and missional church movements

The emerging church movement is a grass roots conversation that, like many reform movements in the church’s history, reflects changes in our culture as well as frustration and disillusionment with elements in the church and the way in which church does—and does not—engage culture. Given the current discussion of the movement in evangelical circles, the Christian Leader asked two Mennonite Brethren to help us understand the emerging church. CL editor Connie Faber hosted a discussion via e-mail with Del Gray, a Tabor College faculty member, and James Bergen, a Mennonite Brethren pastor.

Gray, who received his doctorate in New Testament studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2005, has been a missionary and pastor and is assistant professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College. Gray’s initial contact with the emerging church came through students at Fuller who were pastors or church planters working with an emerging model. Gray continues to learn about the movement from his home in Hillsboro, Kan., by daily joining the online emerging community at jesuscreed.org.

Bergen, a 2000 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary, is one of the pastors at North Fresno MB Church in Fresno, Calif. While he disagrees with certain conversation points, Bergen considers himself part of the emerging church conversation, is part of the emergent cohort in California’s Central Valley and has attended several Emergent Theological Conversations over the past few years.

An abridged version of this article was published in the October print issue of the Christian Leader.

CL: You’ve both noted that defining the emerging church movement is not easy. Nevertheless, how would you define the emerging church movement.

James: Some people are frustrated with the apparent lack of a clear definition of the emerging church movement. This may be in part because it is a newer movement and also that it is primarily a conversation with diverse boundaries.

After you hang out with friends for the evening, how would you define your conversation? It can be difficult to do. But the emergent church conversation and movement do seem to have some recurring themes. It is centered on the church and reexamining a biblical ecclesiology. It is about community and doing life together. It is a Christian movement and conversation seeking to anchor itself in the person of Jesus. And it acknowledges postmodernism and is trying to engage this culture.

Del: I would also include humility about our ability to fully comprehend God or the Scriptures, an openness to the diversity of thought and traditions within Christianity without the need to draw hard lines that would separate us or put an end to meaningful conversation and a de-emphasis of the importance of systematic theology, especially as it has traditionally functioned to make distinctions and divide.

There is an emphasis on orthopraxy (living as a follower of Jesus) as just as important—for some even more important—than orthodoxy (believing all the right doctrines). The emerging church movement often has a renewed appreciation for experiential forms of worship that involve all of the senses and a renewed appreciation for old, liturgical and non-Protestant forms of worship.

There is often a strong prophetic call for the traditional church, especially fundamentalist and evangelical churches, to change in order to reach out to our contemporary world and a strong emphasis on being missional. By this I mean playing an active role in joining God in his work of holistic redemption of all creation. Often this comes out as social action for peace and justice.

James: Another useful distinction that Scot McKnight, a writer and voice to help understand things emergent, points out is that the emergent movement is a protest. “I don’t think it is the next “Protestantism” as some have claimed,” McKnight says, “but it is clearly an anti- and protest movement.” In the U.S. there is a distinct protest of what the church has been offering in her worship and witness over the past years and decades.

CL: Reading about this movement, one encounters the words “emerging” and “Emergent.” Help us understand how these two are different.

Del: This is a hot discussion within the movement right now. As usual, there is a spectrum of opinion. Some see it important to “map” the emerging landscape in order to better understand and analyze while others think it falls back into drawing lines of distinction that separate the body. “Emergent” is usually short for the smaller sub-group “Emergent Village,” and it is an identifiable organization with official membership.

James: In 2001, a group of friends that had been part of the emergent conversation officially organized as “Emergent.” They can be found at www.emergentvillage.com. They host emergent cohorts all across the U.S. and internationally. Tony Jones is the national coordinator. Its most identifiable “unofficial” spokesperson has been pastor and author Brian McLaren. Some latch on to him as the definable voice or center point of the conversation, but that would not be fair. It is a broad conversation and McLaren is one voice among many.

Del: David Dunbar, president of Biblical Seminary has said about Emergent: “Disillusionment with existing church models is probably greater in this group than in the missional or emerging categories. For this reason the emergent critique of the past tends to be edgier and angrier. Many emergents have an almost knee-jerk reaction to anything that suggests fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism.”

When you hear “emerging” church (usually not capitalized like Emergent is) it is the wider movement with no clear central organization or identity. Dan Kimball sees Emergent as focusing more on the theological issues while emerging is more ecclesiology, i.e., “What is the church and how should we shape it to fit this new culture?”

James: I consider myself a part of the emergent conversation and have people I talk with in Fresno. Overall, I think it has tremendous value for Christians and the church. However, I do not know of an Emergent Church in my city nor do I seek to lead the church I am a part of to become an Emergent Church.

CL: What attracts people to the emerging church?

Del: The growth of emerging churches is really quite astounding. At its heart I think it is a reactionary movement that appeals to people who are frustrated with some of the direction that the evangelical church has gone. Much of this disillusionment with how quickly evangelicals have allied themselves with a political movement in the U.S.

Some of it is a reaction to a perception of theological narrowness that excludes conversation and fresh thinking about God. On the other hand many people are attracted to the sense of belonging and family that is often found in emerging churches where a high value is placed on community and relationships.

James: I think Del’s final point is key for some people. The emerging church is a safe place to have conversation. Many people don’t find traditional evangelical circles conducive to honest conversation and question asking.

There is an emergent cohort in Fresno. They get together once a month, and it seems at every meeting a few people end up sharing their personal stories and journeys with faith and the church, their frustrations and some of the things they are wrestling with. They just want a place to process all this stuff going on in their head and in their world.

It seems the conversation itself is very life giving for some people who are experiencing dissonance with the faith they grew up with or the church of their past and their current experience of trying to be a Christian in the contemporary world. For some reason, their current church or denomination does not seem like a safe place to talk. The emerging movement is a good conversation for some of these folks.

I also think emerging church resonates with many people. It uses language and expresses a perspective on the Gospel and the world that many find refreshing. It also seems to be unleashing the vision and creativity of a group of Christians that are hungry to follow Jesus and be the church in a way that makes sense in their world. It is more liquid than structured which is attractive to some.

CL: What makes evangelical Christians uncomfortable with the emerging church?

Del: This is a terribly important question. Because there is often a strong call within the emerging movement for the church to change to effectively engage our society today, there is a justifiable feeling within evangelicalism that it is being criticized loudly. Naturally some of us get defensive when fingers are pointed at us. Many of the criticisms are quite harsh, even sometimes unfair and exaggerated with very polemic language. But if we honestly take a hard look at the church we will recognize that much of what is being said is true, and the same points are often made within our own ranks.

While these questions of how the church should relate to society are important, it is really the theological issues that are the most threatening to evangelicals. The emerging movement is much more comfortable with theological diversity and ambiguity than evangelicals. In fact, one of the major characteristics of the church in the modern era was clear definition of denominational groups according to theological positions. While most of us would agree that many of these positions are relatively less important doctrines, some emerging thinkers have questioned our traditional views on what many evangelicals see as core doctrines of the faith.

At this point it is again important to remember the wide range of thought within the emerging movement. A few authors and bloggers are at one extreme where they confrontationally challenge doctrines like the sufficiency of Christ’s death for salvation. Others, however, want to promote honest conversation and fresh thinking, even about these sacred core theological positions. Dialogue like this can be very healthy and brings new insights and vitality to our faith. There is quite a flurry of new thinking about the Trinity and the Atonement, for example, and is good for us to be challenged with fresh ideas, even if we ultimately disagree.

At the same time these conversations often result in the realization that much of what we believe is the product of tradition and a renewed dialogue with other traditions and ideas can bring in scriptural truths that we have often overlooked. For example the heavy emphasis in the church today on Paul’s use of the judicial metaphor for the meaning of Christ’s death has come at the expense of an awareness of the richness of the other metaphors he uses (participation in Christ’s death, reconciliation between enemies, sacrifice, redemption of slaves, et al.).

James: Its “anti-“ or deconstructionist posture toward the church puts some on the defensive or at odds with the movement. Emerging church also welcomes broad and diverse conversation partners and wouldn’t define or clarify itself as an evangelical movement. There are certainly evangelicals within it but it is larger and more ecumenical. Mainline and Catholic churches are part of this conversation. This makes some uncomfortable.

I think another reason why some may be uncomfortable or concerned with the movement is misinformation about what it is about. Someone can read one book from the emergent genre and take issue with something and think that is what the emergent church is all about, rather then just one author’s perspective. This is never a good practice regardless of the issue.

And as Del says, some are reacting to the movement because of the types of questions and re-envisioning that is going on within the movement. It is a place to ask tough and at times “unsafe” questions about what have been identified as orthodox issues in the past. Perspectives on truth, the Scriptures and the nature of Jesus seem to be the biggest flash points and uncomfortable issues for some that are arising in the emergent conversation.

CL: This is a presidential election year and I’m wondering if emerging church people are drawn to one party over the other?

Del: This is clearly a part of the dynamic of the conversations and the tension between emerging and evangelical. The last election saw a huge rise in the prominence and power of the “evangelical voting block,” even to the extent that it was a common topic in the news. Evangelicals became practically equated with Republicans.

The emerging movement, however, believes that much of the missional thrust of Jesus and the church is also found in traditionally Democratic platforms, especially with regard to care for the poor and the environment. Proponents of emerging are often Democrats for this reason, but for many there is a significant dilemma as neither party perfectly aligns with the values and mission of the church.

James: Politically, from what I have read and understand, the emergent conversation would be most concerned about the politics of Jesus. There is no party of the emergents, and there would be both Republican and Democratic supporters and everything in between.

The emerging church is trying to take the radical call and invitation to follow Jesus seriously and to work that out in every aspect of life and society. From what I have seen and read, a heart for the poor and broken and oppressed would be a core part of an ethic and politic of the emergents. It would be interesting to get the statistics from the November election on exactly how those who define themselves as emergent cast their vote.

CL: Articles in the November CL talk about being “missional” and “emerging.” Is there a difference between these movements and how is it helpful to distinguish between the two?

James: While the emerging conversation has been sparked by some of the same cultural shifts as the missional, I find that it is helpful to view them as two different conversations. The more the two conversations move forward, they seem to find each other as good conversation partners and the lines may be blurring between them. “Emerging” seems to be using the term “missional” more and more in their conversation, but many in the “missional” conversation would not be as quick to identify with “emerging.”

Del: Being “missional” is usually a central part of emerging churches. It certainly is possible, however, to be missional without being emerging. In fact the language and ideas that are used in the current understanding about living missionally should be very familiar to Mennonite and Anabaptists in general because the same ideas have stood at the center of our tradition.

Missional usually refers to active participation in God’s project of redeeming the world. For most evangelicals this would immediately bring to mind evangelism, and while that is certainly a part of it, “missional” is used in a broader sense that is more holistic. Many emerging groups would fold in the ideas of ministry to the poor and oppressed, justice, peace, social action and even redemption of the natural world in ecology.

James: Both movements are trying to take the Bible and Jesus seriously in what are perceived as cultural shifts and the church’s position within that culture. I believe they would both take seriously perceived shifts to modern culture over the past 50 to 100 years as well as acknowledge a post-Christian nature of Western culture. The church, Jesus, the Bible, culture and mission would be emphases of both movements. They are both contemporary conversation partners and movements within the church, but they are different.

CL: I have heard emerging church folks say that much of what they are saying is what we Mennonites have said for a long time. Would you agree with this?

Del: I definitely agree with this statement, and I think that it is exciting. The focus on putting hands and feet to our faith has always been central to Mennonites and the emerging church is finally catching up! This is also true in the emphasis on living in authentic Christian community that is now so popular in the emerging movement. Many emerging eyes are being turned toward Anabaptism with curiosity and appreciation.

James: Yes, I also believe there is some truth to this statement. If Anabaptists have been called “radical reformers” in the past, I think the same could be said of the emergents. They are certainly shaking traditional structures in an attempt to take the Bible seriously in the changing world in which we live. They see some apathy in the modern church and unnecessary ties to tradition and structure that they are reacting to and trying to reform.

Some are calling the movement a “third way” which sounds very familiar to the language of the Anabaptists. Emergents are rediscovering theology in community, living the way of Jesus, discipleship, care for creation, shared leadership and biblical theology. There seem to be a number of shared values with Mennonites/Anabaptists.

Resource list from James Bergen

Four books about the emerging church movement

  • Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, (Baker Academic, 2005)
  • An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches by Ray Anderson (IVP, 2006)
  • The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives by Leonard Sweet, Andy Crouch,Brian D. McLaren, Erwin Rapheal McManus and Michael Horton (Zondervan, 2003)
  • What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church by John D. Caputo, (Baker Academic, 2007

Authors to read within the emerging church movement

  • Andrew Jones
  • Brian McLaren
  • Doug Pagitt
  • Dan Kimball
  • Tony Jones
  • John D. Caputo (to understand philosophy and postmodern thought)

Web sites

There are a myriad of blogs of people joining and hosting this conversation—emergents, critics and everyone in between. To understand the conversation it is helpful to be a part of it—even as a newbie or a skeptic.

Resource list from Del Gray

The best way to read about the emerging movement is to read what they say themselves instead of what their opponents say about them.

  • To experience a vital emerging community on the web, read Scot McKnight’s blog and the community of readers at www.jesuscreed.org.
  • Brian McLaren’s books are very popular and represent an Emergent thinker who is intentionally provocative to make some important points. His newest book is Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson, 2007).
  • Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Zondervan, 2007) will be more centrist in the movement and more comfortable for evangelicals on some levels. He also has a website .

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