We have a communication problem in the church. About change, tradition, our existing culture. We struggle to understand each other when we talk about our liturgy and our patterns of worship and our expectations of leadership. We argue that we want our church to have a more engaged role in the community, but we recoil at the church taking a stand for anything as a whole.
When I’m working with people around the altar, I rarely use the proper names for things. In fact, I’m only speaking to people when something needs to happen – because it isn’t. I tell people to get more bread for the plate or the other cup for the wine. I say that we need another napkin from the drawer in the sacristy. During the emergency isn’t the time to require the translation: the churchy filter of ridiculous church words. I don’t need a 12 year-old staring at me confused, or worse, embarrassed because I’m demanding we use words nobody really needs to ever use.
Hear me: I’m not against these words. We just don’t universally understand them or speak the same language when we use them. And sometimes, we create a stumbling block with them.
I fear that we have gotten very confused about emergence. Perhaps because we don’t talk about it well. Perhaps because we have several phrases for it floating around (Emerging Church, Emergent, emergence, emerging conversation, Fresh Expressions, Ancient Future). Perhaps because all we know about it is what we’ve read in the New York Times or Washington Post: those think pieces about churches doing things differently. Or perhaps we read the books and we wonder what it looks like.
We fall into the trap of thinking emergence is only about the liturgy, and not what informs the liturgy.
Perhaps the book that most specifically tackles this misunderstanding is Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. He writes so thoroughly from an emergence frame of reference, but he is speaking to all of church: how we read the Bible, how we gather and treat each other, how we see our mission in the world, and yes, how we worship.
Emergence is not a fad. Or better church marketing. Or making the church cool. It is seeing everything we do as relating to our faith.
What is emergence then?
Here are 9 things I hope people would come to understand about Emergence Christianity, updated from an earlier attempt to write a ridiculously basic introduction to Emergence Christianity:
- We are currently living in an age of Christianity which some have begun calling an “age of emergence.”
- Every 500 years or so, the world (not just the Christian world) goes through a great upheaval. The last one was the Great Reformation that coincided with the Enlightenment. We are in another, called the Great Emergence.
- The movement toward this upheaval began in the 1840s. The era itself seems to have begun on September 11, 2001.
- In each upheaval, half of our time is spent figuring out what is going on and the other half is spent living into it. We are in the heated former moment, in which we are rejecting what no longer works and discovering what will.
- In each upheaval, there is a grand restructuring of all of Christianity, that takes about a century. This is our phase. Last time, Protestantism was born. This time, Emergence is being born.
- Like Protestantism, Emergence isn’t itself a denomination, but a collection of unaffiliated expressions of a common/similar faith. Therefore, there are many different ways of expressing Emergence. From the emerging church to neo-monasticism to the artist collectives like Ikon, Emergence Christianity is being expressed in a variety of places, including existing churches, such as the Episcopal Church.
- Emergence Christianity is a new strain of religious expression, and therefore is not just a means of appealing to young people or an excuse to play contemporary music, though these might be reasonable parts of that expression. Emergence brings with it different sets of expectations and ideas about scripture, theology, tradition, worship, etc. that are entirely compatible with the existing institutions. However, the existing church has operated with different priorities.
- North American Christians are the last ones to this party. The rest of the world has been dealing with Emergence for much longer.
- And way more than this.
Emergence then isn’t just our expression through worship, or even our personal identity within the church, but an expression of a moment in time, in the great struggle we are having within Christianity to build a more holistic and generous faith. It is a struggle with a past and a future. It is a struggle with cynicism and with hope. It is a struggle with making church only about worship or only about acts of mercy. It is, as Phyllis Tickle always argues, about authority.
When I talk about emergence, I’m talking about this. I’m talking about that struggle, this era, these churches, our people. And I am saying that many of us are in an institution that, like the Roman Catholic Church of the 14th and 15th Centuries, is struggling to protect itself from a world that has changed. A church that struggled with its problems and with how different people had become.
And for many Protestants, it is hard to be the ones protested against. It is hard to imagine that the ones defined by protest, would be the subject of protest. That the church would be divided, not into more Protestant churches, but into a new identity of the Spirit. That GOD would partner with humanity to bring a new reformation.
And more frightening still? That this reformation may be led by the rejection of global institutions, and then the state institutions that brought the Great Reformation, and now, the very denominationalism that has littered our landscape. That the Spirit may be leading us through the Nones.
It is possible to love your church as it is and want it to be different.
It is possible to love your liturgy as it is expressed today and also want to see new life breathed into it.
It is possible to love your congregation and want it to be different.
It is possible to love your gatherings and patterns and also want to gather in new ways.
It is possible that GOD wants us to take the lives we live more seriously than our membership to specific institutions. We may be called to something much, much bigger than membership.
And that something is only beginning to emerge.
[Also check out my earlier post about Millennials, Sacraments, and Emergence.]