An Annotation to
The Emergent Mystique
By Andy Crouch | posted 10/22/2004
First, thanks to Andy Crouch for a compact and valuable overview of the emergent conversation. Thanks also to Christianity Today for the coverage. I’m offering this unofficial, unauthorized annotation to the article because I’m being asked about it by a number of people, and felt this annotation would be an efficient way to respond. My comments are in italics.
The 'emerging church' movement has generated a lot of excitement but only a handful of congregations. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy?
“A handful of congregations” is certainly a “misunderestimate.” The fact that tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of books about the emergent conversation have been sold, that thousands of people come to our events, and that speaking engagements and grateful emails are filling many of our inboxes tells me that something is brewing here. Yet I would much rather the emergent conversation be underestimated and ignored rather than be overestimated and turned into a fad (among friends) or target (among nonfriends). My advice to observers would echo Gamiliel’s: wait and see what happens. What is accurate about the statement is that there are a few congregations leading the way, but there are many many others on the journey.
One spring sunday morning, I was on my way to visit Mars Hill Bible Church, one of the largest and youngest churches in the country, with 10,000 meeting weekly for worship in a converted mall outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. As I took the freeway exit, unsure of the exact directions, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. "Love wins," it said, in distressed white type on a black background. In the rear window was a decal with an intricate pattern—half Art Deco, half Goth tattoo—that incorporated a cross and a fish.
Neither the bumper sticker nor the tattoo-decal alone would have induced me to set aside my hastily scribbled directions and simply follow the car straight to the Mars Hill parking lot. But I knew I'd found my mark when I saw the passenger lower the sun visor, look into the makeup mirror, and meticulously adjust his hair.
Gentlemen, start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture.
This hair motif strikes me as a bit derisive, although being a baldie, I’m probably just oversensitive. The fact is, millions of good traditional Baptists and Episcopalians and Presbyterians can be seen primping, spraying, and otherwise adjusting their bouffants and combovers on any given Sunday on their pilgrimage to public worship: would they be written about in an article, say, on the Religious Right? Those who have hair must manage it, I suppose, which is one of the great advantages of a low-maintenance head.
Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new—few have been in existence for more than five years—a growing number of churches are joining the ranks of the "emerging church."
The “overwhelmingly white” issue may unintentionally show a lack of respect for the Black church in America, which is by and large much stronger in respect to African-American culture than is the predominately white church – making the emergent conversation less urgent for them for now at least. In addition, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic churches fulfill roles for their adherents that white churches do not. Meanwhile, there seems to be a disproportionately high number of Asian-Americans sensitive to the postmodern conversation, along with many Hispanics – for a whole range of reasons we don’t have time to get into here (although if any of my Asian and Hispanic friends would like to explore this on a blog or article, I’ll link to it here).
Still, I have had a number of significant conversations with African-American leaders who tell me that they believe the time is coming when they’ll want and need to be part of this conversation as well. I think this is the case for two reasons, no, three.
1. Many young African-American Christians, especially those who pursue higher education and travel abroad, are every bit as “postmodern” culturally and intellectually as their paler counterparts, often more so.
2. Many older African-American Christian leaders seem to becoming more modern – especially those who pursue broadcast media. This strengthens their appeal for older generations and weakens their appeal to their children and grandchildren.
3. Increasing numbers of young African-American Christians feel somewhat out of synch with both the liberal Democrat leadership of the 1960’s generation – whom they admire but who do not seem fully in touch with their world - and with the conservative neo-fundamentalist leadership associated with religious broadcasting.
These young African American Christians, if welcomed into the emerging church conversation, will not only benefit from the association with other Christians of their generation and mindset, but will also bring great resources to the conversation.
Like all labels, this one conceals as much as it reveals. But the phrase "emerging church" captures several important features of a new generation of churches. They are works in progress, often startlingly improvisational in their approach to everything from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer. Like their own members, they live in the half-future tense of the young, oriented toward their promise rather than their past. But if their own focus is on what they are "emerging" toward, perhaps most surprising are the places they are emerging from.
Weak Is the New Strong
Mars Hill's teaching pastor, Rob Bell, hair tousled and reddish brown, hops on stage in the center of what must have been the mall's anchor store. The huge space has been redecorated in utilitarian gray; a wooden cross reaches from floor to ceiling. Communion elements—the broken crackers and grape juice that are standard issue at Bible churches of every generation—are set at its base.
Bell is almost certainly the only pastor to have begun a megachurch-planting career with a sermon series from the book of Leviticus. Today Bell's text—the story of Jesus rebuking Peter for drawing his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane—is more conventional. Bell has the comic timing, the charisma, and the confidence you'd expect from someone who speaks to thousands every week. And he has a gift for the preacher's memorable phrase. "Swords appear strong," Bell says, "but they're actually quite weak. Jesus appears weak, but he's actually quite strong." Inviting his congregation to embrace weakness, referring to Paul's words about his own infirmity in 2 Corinthians, Bell takes up a refrain: "Weak is the new strong."
It's a pithy way of describing Jesus' upside-down kingdom, and it's a striking way of introducing a Communion service at the foot of a large cross. But "Weak is the new strong" is also an allusion to fashion-industry dictates like "Gray is the new black." Bell is both echoing and subverting a fashion-driven culture of cool. You could say that he puts the hip in discipleship.
Andy here shows that he can utter quite a pithy line himself. If this is interpreted by some readers to be derisive as well as pithy, it’s unfortunate. True, we all need to be warned about being sucked into the vortex of fashionable consumerism. But readers shouldn’t be too hard on Rob Bell without reading all the advertisements in any single issue of Christianity Today and asking what they say about the established majority that may here be tempted to deride an emerging minority.
Clearly cultural relevance was part of the reason for planting a church whose worship team requires a bass player who can play "in the style of Jimmy Eat World and Coldplay." No generation has ever been more alert to such nuances than the media-fed children of the 1980s and '90s, who can sense uncoolness at a thousand paces.
In today’s neo-fundamentalist circles, there are other nuances in play that are no less pervasive: think of the huge number of Christians today who can sense unRepublican-ness, unCalvinism, or undispensationalism at a thousand paces.
As Rob Bell's wife, Kristen, tells CT in a joint interview after the service, "It's a cultural jump for our friends to come to church. It's a cultural jump for us, and we grew up in the church."
But it quickly becomes clear that these Wheaton College sweethearts have more on their minds than just cultural adaptation. "This is not just the same old message with new methods," Rob says. "We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don't speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God."
I’m glad that Andy didn’t stop at the superficials, as some people do, and that he conveys Rob’s emphasis on the deeper issues at play.
In fact, as the Bells describe it, after launching Mars Hill in 1999, they found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church. "Life in the church had become so small," Kristen says. "It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working." The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—"discovering the Bible as a human product," as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. "The Bible is still in the center for us," Rob says, "but it's a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it."
"I grew up thinking that we've figured out the Bible," Kristen says, "that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it's in color."
The more I talk with the Bells, the more aware I am that they are telling me a conversion narrative—not a story of salvation in the strict sense, but of having been delivered from a small life into a big life. The Bells, who flourished at evangelical institutions from Wheaton to Fuller Theological Seminary to Grand Rapids's Calvary Church before starting Mars Hill, were by their own account happy and successful young evangelicals. Yet that very world, as the Bells tell it, became constricting—in Kristen's phrase, "black and white."
An earlier generation of evangelicals, forged in battles with 20th-century liberalism, prided themselves on avoiding theological shades of gray, but their children see black, white, and gray as all equally unlifelike. They are looking for a faith that is colorful enough for their culturally savvy friends, deep enough for mystery, big enough for their own doubts. To get there, they are willing to abandon some long-defended battle lines.
Here Andy and Kristen and Rob Bell convey something very substantial and significant. A gray-free zone of stark easy answers (which were equated with bold, resolute leadership) won the last election, but it won’t win the hearts of the next generation. Neither, of course, will blandness and lack of proper confidence and direction. The challenge for emergent is to find a better alternative.
"Weak is the new strong," it turns out, is not just Rob Bell's knowing reference to the world of fashion, nor just his clever reframing of Paul's message of Christlike life. It's a roadmap for a new way of doing church, even a big church.
And how did the Bells find their way out of the black-and-white world where they had been so successful and so dissatisfied? "Our lifeboat," Kristen says, "was A New Kind of Christian."
A Story of Two Friends
Brian McLaren is not particularly young—he was born in 1956—and he doesn't have cool hair, if only because he has very little hair at all. With his blue-jeans-and-Birkenstocks dress code and a middle-age paunch, he looks like a suburban, nondenominational pastor who came of age playing the guitar for youth ministry meetings in the 1970s.
I’m guilty on all counts, except I’ve never owned any Birkenstocks. I’m not even exactly sure what they are. I’m a poster child for “What Not to Wear,” which I’ve heard of but never actually watched.
Which is exactly what he is. Yet he is also the de facto spiritual leader for the emerging church, thanks to his indefatigable speaking and writing schedule that produced, among his many books, 2001’s A New Kind of Christian.
I’m uncomfortable being labeled “the de facto spiritual leader.” It’s not inaccurate to say that I am a leader, but the problem comes with the word “the.” The fact is, there are many leaders in this conversation; the need to single someone out can be counterproductive for the conversation’s progress. People like Len Sweet, Holly Zaher, Doug Pagit, Nancey Murphy, Chris Seay, Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Rudy Carrasco, Ivy Beckwith, Tony Jones, Jen Lemen, Carl Raschke, ???, Stan Grenz, Sally Morgenthaler, Chuck Smith, Jr., and dozens of others bring resources and leadership that I do not and can not. My main contribution, I think, has been the ability to capture in writing some of the dynamic of the conversation that I have participated in with these and other fascinating, sincere, committed, and gifted people.
“A New Kind of Christian” became influential not just because of its content but also its form. McLaren cast the book as a story of two friends, a disillusioned evangelical pastor named Dan Poole and an enigmatic high school science teacher nicknamed Neo. On the brink of despair with his own ministry, Dan is led by Neo—who turns out to be a lapsed pastor himself—through a series of set pieces that introduce the initially skeptical Dan to a "postmodern" approach to Christianity.
The modern period of history, as Neo tells it, is coming to an end. We are entering "postmodernity," an as-yet ill-defined borderland in which central modern values like objectivity, analysis, and control will become less compelling. They are superseded by postmodern values like mystery and wonder. The controversial implication is that forms of Christianity that have thrived in modernity—including Dan's evangelicalism—are unlikely to survive the transition.
That’s quite a fine summary, better than I could have done myself.
McLaren managed to connect abstruse concepts of intellectual and social history to a visceral sense of disillusionment among evangelical pastors. Dan's dissatisfaction with ministry, in McLaren's telling, was not primarily a faith problem, a psychological problem, or a sociological problem. It was a philosophical problem—the result of a way of thinking that was no longer adequate. Pastors who would have had a hard time seeing the relevance of postmodernism could suddenly envision it as the key to finding, as the book's jacket put it, "spiritual renewal for those who thought they had given up on church."
I don’t see postmodernism as the key to anything. I see the gospel as the key. But the questions of postmodern, postcolonial culture challenged a number of us to see the gospel in – as was said – fuller color and bigger dimensions.
The book generated an outpouring of intensely personal response. To this day McLaren continues to receive grateful e-mails from readers. The book also confirmed the intuitions of many who sensed that major changes were under way in the culture. By offering a fundamentally hopeful, rather than despairing or defensive, reading of those changes, McLaren staked out an attractive position for young people like Rob and Kristen Bell.
I think that “direction” would be a better word than “position.”
But A New Kind of Christian has also attracted plenty of critics. The most persistent question they raise is whether "modern" and "postmodern" can be divided so cleanly. Wheaton College philosopher Mark Talbot points out that skepticism about values like objectivity, analysis, and control was already present in Enlightenment figures like David Hume. Meanwhile, Talbot says, "the great irony is that by giving us these sharp categories of 'modern' and 'postmodern' ways of thinking, McLaren is doing the very sort of categorization he describes, and implicitly condemns, as modern."
I’ve never met Mark Talbot (as far as I know), but if I ever meet him, here’s the conversation I could imagine having:
Mark: Nice to meet you. What did you think of my comments in the CT article?
Brian: Well, I agree with almost everything you said, except two things. First, while I do try to offer some sense of coherence around the terms modern and postmodern, I am careful both in print and in public to acknowledge that they are not sharp categories as you suggest. In fact, I frequently acknowledge the fact that these terms make some things clear and can make other things less clear, and my writing is full of disclaimers in awkward parentheses about the term “postmodern.” I often talk about the “minority report” of modernity – romanticism, which was a special interest of mine in college – and I do my best to avoid facile dualisms.
Mark: Well, I’ve read some of your books, not all of them, and I didn’t think you did a good enough job of making that clear.
Brian: I wish I would have done better.
Mark: You said there were two things?
Brian: Yes. Second, I don’t condemn categorization as modern. Categorization or classification is one of the fundamental mental operations of human beings – like discerning cause and effect, comparison and contrast. True, categorization can be abused; name-calling is a kind of illegitimate classification, as are guilt-by-association arguments. And even if categorization were modern – it doesn’t mean that it is bad. I say with a boring redundancy that postmodern is not antimodern. Modern isn’t inherently bad; it’s just not the only option. It’s not the only soil in which the gospel can grow.
Mark: I wish you had made that clearer in your books.
Brian: Well, again, I wish I had made that clearer. Sorry about that. By the way, your critique is not the most common critique of my work – not by a longshot.
Mark: What is?
Brian: It’s that I don’t rely on an exclusively modern epistemology. For example, someone who critiqued NKOC on Amazon.com wrote, “Brian McLaren doesn’t know anything.” That’s a rather obvious example of someone who can’t imagine knowing outside of his own modern epistemology. Another critic there wrote that propositional truth is the only kind there is. In contrast, I’d say propositional truth is one kind of truth among many, which really frustrates some people. Want to go out for a cup of coffee and dialogue about this some more? I’ll pay …
The point Talbot and others make is not just a matter of quibbling over definitions. If a self-avowed postmodern Christian can't differentiate himself from the moderns he is critiquing, perhaps the divide between modernity and postmodernity is less like the San Andreas Fault and more like a crack in the sidewalk. And if there is no massive change under way in the culture, why make a case for a massive change in the church?
Hmmm. This paragraph contains what I would call a faulty categorization, a false dichotomy. The options are not only a) San Andreas Fault, and b) crack in the sidewalk. A better analogy might be the move from childhood to puberty, or from puberty to adolescence, or from adolescence to adulthood.
Besides, I’m not interested in being a “self-avowed postmodern Christian,” nor do I really care about differentiating myself from modern brothers and sisters, nor do I want to critique modern people from being what they are. I’m interested in not being dominated by modernity or postmodernity either so I can be as faithful to Christ and my neighbor as I can.
If people don’t want to make a massive change in the church, I don’t want to bother them. If they would like to keep things just as they’ve always been (since the 1950’s), I wish them all the success in the world. True, some of us feel we need some pretty deep changes – and not just in “church” but more profoundly, in our understanding of the gospel. But that’s not for everybody, which is why I’m happy to be ignored by all who are happy with things as they are.
Envisioning a Postmodern Church
The real significance of A New Kind of Christian, though, may be not its answers but its openness to questions that are clearly widespread.
Even now McLaren resists calling Emergent, the emerging church network that he and several other church planters and pastors lead, a “movement,” with that word’s connotations of a clear leadership and agenda.
“Right now Emergent is a conversation, not a movement,” he says. “We don’t have a program. We don’t have a model. I think we must begin as a conversation, then grow as a friendship, and see if a movement comes of it.”
Yet recently McLaren has started to sketch the outlines of his vision of a postmodern church. He sketches a big circle labeled “self,” a smaller circle next to it labeled “church,” and a tiny circle off to the side labeled “world.”
“This has been evangelicalism’s model,” he says. “Fundamentally it’s about getting yourself ‘saved’—in old-style evangelicalism—or improving your life in the new style. Either way, the Christian life is really about you and your needs. Once your needs are met, then we think about how you can serve the church. And then, if there’s anything left over, we ask how the church might serve the world.”
He starts drawing again. “But what if it went the other way? This big circle is the world—the world God loved so much that he sent his Son. Inside that circle is another one, the church, God’s people chosen to demonstrate his love to the world. And inside that is a small circle, which is your self. It’s not about the church meeting your needs, it’s about you joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs.”
With his circle diagrams, McLaren is popularizing the work of the late British missionary Lesslie Newbigin, who returned from a lifetime in India to spend his last years reflecting on the need for a new theology of mission. “According to Newbigin, the greatest heresy in monotheism is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of election,” McLaren says. “Election is not about who gets to go to heaven; election is about who God chooses to be part of his crisis-response team to bring healing to the world.”
This is a really nice summary of a long and complex conversation Andy and I had. If you want more detail on this subject, I’d recommend Guder’s The Missional Church, or again, my new book, A Generous Orthodoxy.
McLaren doesn't just want to turn the doctrine of election upside down (or, as Newbigin argued, right side up)—he has questions about other cherished words in the evangelical vocabulary.
"I don't think we've got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be 'saved'? When I read the Bible, I don't see it meaning, 'I'm going to heaven after I die.' Before modern evangelicalism nobody accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, or walked down an aisle, or said the sinner's prayer."
It's not that McLaren is interested in joining the liberal side of modern Protestantism. "I don't think the liberals have it right. But I don't think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy."
Comments like these make many evangelicals nervous.
Comments like those actually make me nervous! Andy is undertaking a really tough task – summarizing a long and convoluted conversation in a few words, not easy to do as any writers out there realize. I think he’s done a good job of summarizing, but I’m nervous that people will interpret what I said in the worst possible way.
It doesn't help that postmodernism, in the popular imagination, often amounts to pure skepticism about getting anything "right" at all. How can a worldview built on critiquing—or in the postmodern argot, deconstructing—concepts like orthodoxy and salvation be faithful to the gospel? What makes the emerging church's dissatisfaction with traditional Christianity any different from that of liberal Protestantism, which embraced the culture's values only to wither as the culture changed a generation later?
These are valid questions. I address them in some detail in A Generous Orthodoxy, especially in the beginning and end of the book.
Yet there are real differences between emerging-church leaders like McLaren and those who led the charge for liberal Christianity. Liberalism flourished in a time of Christian cultural dominance, and was championed by leaders eager to keep pace with modern culture. McLaren and his companions tend to be children of notably conservative churches—in McLaren's case, the Plymouth Brethren—who have never enjoyed, nor aspired to, cultural power. They are also evangelists who care passionately about reaching the unchurched.
The preceding paragraph is very important. Andy captures my perspective well. I would add, along with caring about reaching the unchurched for Christ, I am eager to reach Christians for Christ, beginning with myself.
I understand why many of my conservative evangelical or neo-fundamentalist brothers and sisters mis-label me “liberal.” They’ve grown up in a cold-war style world where there are two camps, us and them, conservative and liberal. It’s hard for them to realize that that polarity is as gone now as the old “better dead than red” rhetoric of the 50’s.
McLaren describes his dissatisfaction when he first became a pastor: "My gifts were in evangelism, but I was spending all my time with Christians. Then I encountered Rick Warren and his conviction that the church could be evangelistic. We decided to take 10 months to regroup. Then we reconstituted the church with about 80 Christians—and in a year or so, another hundred previously unchurched people joined us."
If critics overlook the evangelistic energy of the emerging church, they also often lump together two very different kinds of postmodern thought. The most notorious postmodern thinkers have been the "deconstructionists"—French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who seek to show that the cherished ideals of Western society (and Christian faith) are fatally compromised by internal contradictions.
That’s not quite an adequate description of deconstructionists, but I’m sympathetic to Andy’s rising word-count limit for the article. Deconstruction is hard to describe in 300 pages, much more in three lines. I would add (briefly) that deconstructionists were keenly concerned about morality and injustice – and the ways that modern ideas like white supremacy, colonialism, manifest destiny, and the myth of progress are not ultimate absolute realities, but rather human inventions (constructions) that can be deconstructed in hopes of finding wiser and more just ways of thinking and living.
But another stream, less well-known outside universities and seminaries, has taken dissatisfaction with modernity in a more constructive direction. It is these thinkers—the late philosopher Michael Polanyi and Notre Dame professor Alasdair MacIntyre, along with theologians like Newbigin—who are gaining the attention of the emerging church's more theologically inclined leaders.
From Newbigin, McLaren has drawn the idea of the church as "missional"—oriented toward the needs of the world rather than oriented towards its own preservation. From Polanyi and MacIntyre, he concludes that the emerging church must be "monastic"—centered on training disciples who practice, rather than just believe, the faith.
My friend Diana Butler-Bass, working in a parallel track in the “mainline” world, is going in a similar direction, emphasizing the importance of spiritual and missional practice. See The Practicing Congregation.
He cites Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, with their emphasis on spiritual disciplines, as key mentors for the emerging church. None of these thinkers has any inclination to throw out the baby of truth with the bathwater of modernity.
I’m grateful to Andy for including the preceding, because many people doubt this.
Indeed, these constructive postmodernists have been read and appreciated in many evangelical seminaries for years—but their ideas have been more often appreciated than applied. McLaren's innovation was to ask what it would mean to actually live out their ideas in a local church. Like Rob and Kristen Bell, he is passionate about the Good News. He just wonders if there is more to that Good News than evangelicals have yet imagined.
I should say that this wasn’t my innovation. I had never even heard of Lesslie Newbigin until Chris Seay recommended him to me. This innovation is very much a fruit of a conversation among many friends. Also, many of us are simply trying to embed in our churches ideas about the reintegration of evangelism and social action that have been championed since the Lausanne Covenant, by evangelical speakers from John Stott to Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tom Sine.
At the Emergent Convention in Nashville in April, it becomes clear that McLaren's insistence that "Emergent is not a movement" is not false modesty.
In the cavernous hall of the Nashville Convention Center, jerky loops of handheld video—an urban streetscape, an artist at work, a cross-country ski trail—play continuously on three separate screens throughout each general session. On one side of the room, the ancient and currently fashionable tradition of a prayer labyrinth has been revived, with the addition of bicycles.
This might sound a little cheesy to some people, but is there anything wrong with lightening up and having some fun, encouraging some childlike-creativity, and using the setting to stimulate thought?
At the opening session, Youth Specialties president Mark Oestreicher (hair: two-tone wavy locks) urges attendees to come and go at will, cheerfully undermining the credibility of the proceedings: "A lot of what conference speakers say is not really true—they take 20 years of reality and turn it into 90 minutes of unreality."
Ah, the hair thing again. Would CT like to make this a habit? How about an article on some august gathering that says, “Dr. John Graham (comb-over from the left side) spoke to Dr. Wayne Van Brighten (three-inch-high pompador upheld by Brylcreem) about the work of Rev. Ken Stout (televangelist slick-back without part, held in place by hair spray, with three waves between forehead and crown)…”
Mark’s comment encourages critical listening, which I appreciate.
Thus prepared, the 800 conference-goers do indeed wander in and out through the videos, poetry, worship music, and plenary speakers, chatting on their cell phones in aimless motion. Like so much of American mass media culture, the overall effect is undeniably cool, but also seemingly designed to aggravate—if not generate—attention deficit disorder.
We could have a fascinating conversation about ADD, which may actually in some cases be the absence of OLTD - “obsessive-linear-thinking-disorder,” or the absence of LLFS – “long-lecture-fatigue-syndrome.”
At the Emergent Convention, emerging theology and emerging culture don't so much coexist as collide, thanks to the somewhat uneasy partnership between Emergent and Youth Specialties.
I don’t like the adjective “uneasy” here. The fact is, we’ve had an incredibly fruitful partnership with Youth Specialties, one that I hope will continue for a long time. Every partnership I’ve been involved in has bumps in the road from time to time; that means you have two real live partners, neither of whom is superfluous. The unease in the partnership is less about Youth Specialties than it is about the evangelical/neofundamentalist subculture, which is a reality both YS and emergent have to deal with, which neither of us created, and which we both hope to influence in better directions.
During one particularly experimental worship session, featuring a well-known British dj (hair: spiked) whose pulsating techno music (complete lyrics: "It's just you and God") builds to a climax that would have played well in pagan Corinth, I find Brian McLaren outside the convention hall.
"I hate it," he says ruefully of the worship music. Another Emergent leader tells a seminar, "The general sessions are a betrayal of everything Emergent stands for."
I need to clarify my rather rude comment. I actually love this dj’s music, being a closet fan of techno in general and this fellow’s work in particular. What I didn’t like was using an avante-garde musical form to package a (to me) tired revivalist hype that reinforces individualism and a kind of erotic piety. I didn’t like the content, nor did I like the mismatch between form and content. Having said that, I also know a lot of other people liked it. A lot. Go figure.
Many people are simply looking for hipper packaging for old methods and messages – hip revivalism, for example. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but that’s just not emergent’s emphasis.
The truth is that the convention makes it difficult to tell what Emergent does stand for. Even the invited guests seem bewildered. Plenary speaker Robert Webber, whose book The Younger Evangelicals celebrates the emerging church, is clearly taken aback by what he sees: "They claim to be rejecting the last 30 years of evangelicalism—and they're repeating the last 30 years of evangelicalism."
This is a huge part of my frustration too. Youth Specialties is a great partner, and they’re not to be blamed for this. The fact is, emergent conventions attract a lot of evangelicals and neofundamentalists who are very early in the rethinking process. Many of them do just want to put the hip back in discipleship, as Andy said earlier. Again, many of us are interested in moving beyond the individualistic, revivalist piety many of these people want to reenergize and save, to discover territory that is both deeper and broader – deeper theologically and spiritually, and broader in terms of social justice and peace. The “Jesus and me” and “bless-me-more” tone of some of the music is deeply frustrating – but remember, we (emergent) didn’t invent this stuff. And I hope we’ll be beyond it – far beyond it – soon.
Twentysomething writer Lauren Winner, dismayed by the video loops playing incessantly behind her during her address, tells me, "I feel so alienated from my generation."
As often is the case, pendula overswing, and we’ve certainly done that at times at our events. But we’re learning, and I believe next year’s event will be a huge step forward. Of course, we’ll never get it right. We’ll always want to improve things, which is a good thing.
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Any movement—or conversation—that can inspire such ambivalence, even among its friends, has an uncertain future. Nor is it easy to quantify the emerging church's present.
Yes. Everybody has an uncertain future, I’d say. Hopefully, Andy’s reflections can help emergent learn and avoid dangers it faces and will face.
McLaren guesses that "only a few dozen" churches across the country are fully committed to the theological journey he sketched in A New Kind of Christian. Even Rob Bell did not start that journey until after founding Mars Hill Bible Church. The number of churches whose pastors have cool hair is, of course, much larger—but hardly qualifies as a single movement any more than the number of churches whose pastors wear ties. For the moment, as the Emergent Convention demonstrates, the confusion of style and substance makes for strange bedfellows.
The analogy to adolescence comes to mind. Emergent is new, young, discovering itself. I’m not surprised by the confusion. I can’t imagine anything else being the case. And even though the numbers of “fully committed” might be small, the numbers of friends who are listening, learning, having hope re-inspired … is very high. And that’s much more significant than hair.
Meanwhile, McLaren's fellow travelers—whether they are dozens or, as Emergent book sales would suggest, tens of thousands—are not the only Christians responding to the challenges of postmodern culture. Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church attracts several thousand culturally savvy young people with unapologetically Reformed preaching and worship, and churches inspired by Redeemer are thriving in several cities on both coasts.
Many people would be happy, I think, if emergent would go away. What they’d really like is a kinder, more culturally savvy Reformed church. Many people involved in emergent are Reformed, and I think Reformed folk have a lot to offer. I’m a big fan of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian. I thank God for them. But I think we need many other examples of innovative churches, including some who move beyond the categories of modernity (I’m not against categories!).
Catholic journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell has documented the rise of "the new faithful," a growing group of young Americans, often drawn from the same locations and vocations as the emerging church, who are embracing orthodoxy without McLaren's qualifiers.
Again, I thank God for these folk. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I believe God works through all of these varied expressions of renewal and mission.
Implicitly responding to Emergent's disaffection with modern evangelicalism, in March the National Association of Evangelicals attracted more than 200 "young evangelicals" to the inaugural meeting of a network led by Carolyn Haggard, the niece of NAE president Ted Haggard. The 23-year-old Wellesley College graduate says, "The Bible has been relevant for 2,000 years, and popular culture isn't really going to change that. Saying that we're cooler than the generation before, we're more savvy, and we're obviously more intellectual than the generation before—that's not something we'd be at all interested in promoting."
I hope neither Andy nor Carolyn is suggesting that any of us are interested in being cooler, more savvy, or more intellectual than anybody else. I simply hope that we all can be more faithful – Andy, Carolyn, me, the NAE, emergent, everybody.
So Emergent has no lock on the next generation. In this respect it may prove no different from the previous Christian movement characterized by male hair, the Jesus Movement. It coexisted, often uneasily, with more cautious expressions of church, was animated by a combination of beautiful ideals and foolish ideas, and ultimately merged into an evangelical mainstream that had adapted to its presence.
I like Andy’s word “merged” in the previous sentence because it poses a nice contrast to “emerge.” My hope is that emergent can emerge as a convergence among some Christians from evangelical, mainline, Roman Catholic and perhaps Orthodox traditions, sharing our treasures and joining together in mission in our needy, wonderful world. I hope that evangelicalism will not be like the borg on Star Trek, against whose assimilating influence resistance is futile. As an old Jesus Movement guy, I for one think it’s a shame how the Jesus Movement was assimilated (domesticated, co-opted, sold-out, or whatever) without having much effect. That was sad both for the movement and for evangelicalism. In the next paragraph, Andy shares that hope.
But the Jesus Movement, largely composed of converts, was generally unconcerned with theology. Emergent, whose leaders are evangelicalism’s own sons and daughters, may yet contribute something more profound than one more fleeting form of cultural relevance.
At least that's what Rob Bell hopes. "People don't get it," he told me. "They think it's about style. But the real question is: What is the gospel?"
That question, of course, is not new. It was asked by, among others, a devout young German monk named Martin Luther who found church increasingly dissatisfying. His answer, rooted in Scripture, changed the direction of Christian history at a moment of epochal cultural change.
Is it possible that a compelling new answer could emerge from McLaren's "conversation"? If so, Bell may have a head start, with props to the apostle Paul. "Weak is the new strong." The emerging church, and evangelicalism, could do a lot worse.
This is a hopeful ending. Emergent is weak in many ways, some of them detailed by Andy’s article. Whether that weakness will become a spiritual opportunity for God’s power to be made manifest or not will depend on … on something other than our strength, size, ability, coolness, lack of coolness, or hair.
Because of word limits, Andy couldn’t recount a major concern of mine – the international dimension of the emergent conversation. In the last few years, I’ve become more convinced that “postmodern” is actually a small slice of a larger movement in social history that could be called “postcolonialism.” True, these days U.S. foreign policy threatens to return us to an ugly era that might be labeled “the return of colonialism,” but hoping against hope that it will fail, I am deeply committed to finding Christian leaders in the global south who, formerly colonized, now seek a more just and peaceful postcolonial future. I would like very much to meet these sisters and brothers, learn from them, and bring them into conversation with their counterparts in the former colonizing countries. Any future worth working for, in my opinion, is a future in which we collaborate with African, Latin American, and Asian Christians … seeking to be blessed together in order to be a blessing together to the rest of our shared world. Much of my time, travel, and energy has been invested in this project in recent years, and I expect that more will be so invested in the future, God willing.
Andy Crouch is a columnist for CT and a coauthor of Emergent's The Church in Emerging Culture (Zondervan, 2003).
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November 2004, Vol. 48, No. 11, Page 36