Home > Christianity, Emergent Movement > The American emergent movement and postmodernism: Introduction & Part I

The American emergent movement and postmodernism: Introduction & Part I

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


I’ve written a series on the American emergent movement, its brief history, its lack of definition, its connection to postmodernism, and its effect on cultural Christianity in the United States. It’s possible to read up on the emergent movement and feel like you’re spinning your tires in a ditch. I’ve tried my best to avoid that in this series and provide some kind of clarity on the subject.

I tackle a multitude of things, which may or may not become clear through this series:

  1. My experience at a postmodern/emerging worship service
  2. The Emergent Church’s history & definition (or lack thereof)
  3. The unofficial buzzword of the movement: conversation
  4. The Emergent Church’s connection to postmodern philosophy
    • Definition of modernism
    • Definition of postmodernism
    • Definition and essence of postmodern philosophy
      • Rooted in criticism and critique
      • Rooted in a shift away from superiority and toward equality
    • Discarding the label “postmodern Christianity”
  5. The identical foundations between secular postmodernism and the emergent movement
    • Criticism and critique are at the heart of each movement
    • Neither movement has a clear, determinate meaning
    • Both movements seek deconstruction in some fashion
  6. The theme of Christianity as a running narrative or an unfolding story
  7. Distinguishing between emergent and emerging (according mainly to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle)
  8. How the emergent movement affects my life
    • My experience reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis
  9. Impact of the emergent movement
    • Cultural relevancy in domestic missions
    • Expansion of faith post-legalism without it falling apart
    • Influence on Christian dress
    • Influence in Christian art
    • Its possible effect on long-term Christianity

This might as well become a Wikipedia entry in and of itself. My hopes are, however numerous or few of you, that you’ll be able to read through this series with some degree of ease in order to gain a fuller understanding of the emergent movement. My apologies in advance if I fall into emergent-speak that is at all unclear.

For the past day or two, I’ve been doing some research and reading on the Emergent Church and postmodernism. My husband, baffled by my sudden interest in the movement, asked why. I explained that the Emergent Church (which, by the way, isn’t really an institutional church, just a term assigned to the emergent movement) and its connection to postmodernism has become pervasive in Christian culture. I’ve seen it in the blogs and books I read, I see it in some cutting-edge, hip magazines, and I see it in some worship services. The emergent movement’s influence is one of those things that I’ve been able to see but have not been able to define. So, I’ve suddenly become filled with the desire to define it.

How is one able to “see” the emergent movement without being able to define it? Consider the following experience:

A few years ago when my husband, J, and I moved to the Pennsylvania area he grew up in, we began our quest to find a church community. A local church nearby proved to be rather large and boasted the opportunity to quickly connect with a body of believers who were in similar stages of life. The church had three services at the time: traditional, contemporary, and postmodern (PM) geared toward 20- to 30-somethings. The latter used to be described as a worship service for a “postmodern generation,” but they’ve updated the wording to say that it’s for an “emerging generation.”

J and I tried the contemporary service first. While I knew much of the music, it was something I preferred to sing and listen to on my own time, not in church. My husband didn’t like the music or style of worship at all. So we decided to attend the traditional service since we had a background of worshiping solely with hymns. That Sunday, we brought J’s 80-something year old grandmother along and she fell asleep because the traditional service was slow and dragged out. Finally, I convinced J to try the PM service later that evening. J was reluctant to go but agreed.

We walked into the sanctuary just before the 6 o’clock start time. The change from the traditional service earlier that day was remarkable. During the traditional service, the sanctuary had been brightly lit with spotlights focused on the blue-robed choir on the stage. For the PM service, the sanctuary was dim; the only light that shone came from candles and the lobby every time a door opened. J and I used what little light existed to find our seats. We sat patiently as we looked toward the (also) dimly lit stage for the worship team. The worship team was really just a church band with dress reminiscent of a post-grunge era. From what I could tell, their look was somewhat slightly messy, rugged, and edgy.

At around six, the band began to play. The singer (and guitarist) mumbled words into the microphone, singing primarily to God and not as a leader of worship. I gazed around in the near-darkness at other worshipers to see if they knew the words to the music. They did not appear to. It was like listening to a small opening act at a concert. People politely listened to the band perform music they’d never heard before because they were waiting for the main act (in this case, I’m assuming it would have been the pastor to deliver a sermon) to appear. To me, there seemed to bee a big disconnect between the band and the worshipers.

Half-hour into this worship concert, someone (perhaps the pastor? I couldn’t see well enough in the darkness) walked to the front of the sanctuary (but not on the stage) and gave announcements for a few minutes before disappearing again and allowing the band to play.

J and I are accustomed to singing maybe 4 or 5 songs before a sermon so a half-hour straight full of songs without interruption was a bit jarring for us. After the announcement, the music droned uninterrupted for another 15 minutes at which point, J and I feared we wouldn’t hear a sermon and had simply walked into a concert. After another 5 minutes of music, J said he needed to use the restroom. I told him that if the band continued to play for another 5 minutes without even a hint of the pastor nearing forward to preach, I’d meet him in the lobby.

Five minutes later (and a full hour from the start of the service), I met J in the lobby and we left. And the band played on.

We didn’t stay for the entire service, and we weren’t sure how long the service would have been considering the average sermon can last upwards to 45 minutes. One hour was more than enough for J and I to determine that it wasn’t a service we were interested in participating in ever again.

The PM service relied heavily on two main things to generate an emotional experience: ambiance (dim lighting) and music (it was  moody). It can only be assumed that this induced emotional experience was intended to create a worshipful atmosphere. For some, it may have. (Last I checked, the service is still around so people are interested.) For my husband and I, it was distracting (and the dimness, sleep-inducing). We immediately determined that the church simply wasn’t for us and stopped attending any of their services altogether.

Even though I haven’t been to an emergent service since then, the emergent experience has stayed with me. So much that I have been able to identify emergent influence in certain aspects of contemporary Christian culture. (Relevant Magazine comes to mind as a Christian publication that oozes emergent influence without overtly defining itself as emergent. With a tagline like “God. Life. Progressive culture.”, its simple, straightforward statement embodies the essence of emergence.)

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