The term “emergent” as it applies to the Christian faith and the concept of the “emergent church” is still something around which I am trying to wrap my mind. At this point, here is what I think I have figured out:
- It isn’t a denomination. In fact, it pops up in all sorts of denominational and non-denomination environments.
- It doesn’t seem to have a particular theological take. In fact, it eschews systematic theology and embraces diversity of theological thought.
- It doesn’t embrace any sort of “-ism.” In fact, people who associate themselves with the “emergent church” tend to place “post-” prior to any “-ism” to which they are associated.
Brian McLaren, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, uses the example of tree rings to describe the concept of “emergent.” Each new ring embraces those before it, and the tree grows in the soil comprised of its ancestors. A tree does not reject what has come before, whether it be well- or ill-formed, but encircles it, makes it a part of itself, and moves outward using it as its base.
McLaren’s book really struck a chord with me, as it summed up much of what I have been feeling over the course of the past several years. After I became a Christian, I simmered in the broth of evangelicalism into which I was converted. The world was quite black and white back then – basically, I and those who thought like me were right, and everyone else was wrong.
But then I graduated from my insulated bubble of a college fellowship and entered “the real world.” And things stopped lining up quite as well as they did before. The more people who were very different from myself that I met, the more I started to realize that there was a whole lot of God in people who I would have sworn were dead wrong about their theology.
This really came to a head for me when I went to the Politics and Spirituality conference last fall, and found that the person from whom I learned the most about God was a Franciscan father who had spent time meditating with Buddhist monks (a concept which set off all kinds of bells in the “black and white” remnants of my faith). And not only did I learn things about God from this man who in my former life I would have branded a “heretic,” but God’s spirit washed over me in response to those teachings.
Over the course of the past several years, especially in online conversations, I have learned as much from Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics as I have from the evangelicals in the church I attend.
So when McLaren talks of an “emergent” view of the world where we seek to embrace and not reject those who have gone before us, his message speaks to my heart. Because that’s what I have been living in recent years.
The thing I like most about an “emergent” view is that it recognizes that we will never arrive (at least, prior to meeting Jesus face-to-face). The moment when we think we have God and the scriptures all figured out is likely the moment when we are the most wrong. And it is this understanding which gives us the humility to recognize our limitations in understanding the truth and the grace to accept and embrace others who may have a somewhat different understanding.
McLaren states this much better than I could:
“What we will be is not yet clear to us. What we are becoming is presently only visible as through a glass darkly. As we see the glorious image of God in the face of Christ, as we lean toward that image that beckons us forward, as we identify it as our true destiny and the pearl of great price that we seek, we are purified and transformed inwardly, from glory to glory. We constantly emerge from what we were and are into what we can become – not just as individuals, but as participants in the emerging realities of families, communities, cultures, and worlds.
For too many, the process of emergence is fitful, stalled, aborted, like a butterfly halfway in and halfway out of its cocoon. It is to these trapped people that Jesus calls, ‘Follow me.’ We follow him into full emergence as children of God. It is for this full emergence that we thirst with aspiration, longing, and hope.”
I still don’t completely understand what it means to be “emergent.” But I think, at the end of the day, I am convinced that God is working though the “emergent church” to teach his followers and the world something new about himself. And like other movements of his spirit beforehand, I suspect that the church will be transformed for the better.
And so, I guess it would be accurate to call me an “emergent post-evangelical.”