The emergent movement & postmodernism: Part II
Emergent history & definition (or lack thereof)
Now, to define the Emergent Church, as noted blogger Tim Challies says in reviewing the book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be):
“To borrow a tired cliche… is much like trying to nail Jello to the wall.”
Indeed. In a Google search for “emergent church” or “emerging church,” does not yield anything concrete. The terms “Emergent Church,” “emerging church,” “emergent movement,” and “emergent stream” are all used interchangeably by many people to refer to the same thing. (However, a distinction between “emergent” and “emerging” will be noted later.) One will likely stumble across someone’s attempts to define the Emergent Church, usually with a significant bias either for or against. Even the Emerging Church entry in wikipedia contains various citations for “weasel words,” vague phrasing, unverified claims, and lack of references. The Wikipedia entry complaints are actually ironic: the complaints actually perform a great job of describing the emergent movement. I don’t say that necessarily as a criticism. The founders of the emergent movement do not want it to be defined. So for the wiki entry to use weasel words and vague phrasing is the best that any writer of that wikipedia entry can do. There is no clear-cut, textbook definition.
When I speak of the Emergent Church, I refer only to the American aspect of it. (The emergent movement outside of the U.S. is long and varied.) A few core people at the foundation of this movement in the United States are Brian McLaren, Spencer Burke, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Don Miller, and Mark Driscoll. (However, Driscoll has since disassociated himself and his ministry with this movement.) McLaren especially seems to be the driving figure of the Emergent Church and the community website Emergent Village, which loosely defines itself as “a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
Based on the Emergent Village About page, the emergent movement appears to have been born in the late 1990s by a group friends who felt “disillusioned and disenfranchised by the conventional ecclesial institutions of the late 20th century.” By 2001, this group of friends official declared themselves and their beliefs as “emergent.” Here’s a statement from the website explaining why the word emergent was chosen:
In English, the word “emergent” is normally an adjective meaning coming into view, arising from, occurring unexpectedly, requiring immediate action (hence its relation to “emergency”), characterized by evolutionary emergence, or crossing a boundary (as between water and air).
As intended, the Emergent Church is now a burgeoning movement within 21st century Christianity.
Unofficial buzzword: conversation
The Emergent Village site lists four buzzwords that are thrown around in its community: growing, generative, friendship, and missional. I believe it failed to list a very important fifth: conversation.
The word “conversation” is as foundational to the emergent movement as the word “triage” is to the business world. On various websites I’ve read, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the Emergent Church, the word conversation is thrown around like water at a baptism. Leaders of the movement stress that it’s all about conversation. (Also note that the leaders of this movement do choose their words carefully.) Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of what a conversation is (as it relates to our current usage):
2 a (1) : oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas
(2) : an instance of such exchange : talk <a quiet conversation>
b : an informal discussion of an issue by representatives of governments, institutions, or groups
c : an exchange similar to conversation
This is exactly what the leaders of the Emergent Church want: an exchange and an informal discussion.
Back in seventh grade, I used to participate in something called “rap sessions.” The point was to air our grievances and discuss any issues weighing on our minds. But nothing was ever resolved. It was simply an outlet for talking. The emergent movement (also referred to as the “emergent stream” to represent the continuous flow of conversation), in essence, is nothing more than just a Christian rap session on a grand scale. We all have our problems with Christianity but the emergent movement allows Christians to simply engage in conversation and air their observations without ever really rectifying any issues that might be plaguing them.