Eulogizing the Emergent Church and Defining a Missional Movement

Chris —  February 21, 2013

Yesterday, Tony Jones reacted to this video, basically saying that so many people claim to be “missional” that it has no meaning.  Tony, whose Patheos blog seems the loudest remaining voice of the Emergent Church movement, seems miffed that people he has worked with in the past are now trying to differentiate themselves from (among other things) Emergent.  So what’s the big deal about all these labels?

I came across the emergent church when I was living as Colorado transplant in the BIble belt during my college days in the early 2000s.  It was an unexpected culture shock, this parallel universe where everyone smiled all the time, went to church every Sunday and seemed proud to have zero relationships with non-Christians.  Christianity was their culture, not their purpose.

Yet a few canary’s were crying out in our coal mine.  They noticed that the people my age didn’t want anything to do with the church they grew up in.  In an effort to understand this, a great white whale appeared: Postmodernism!  What had once been the talk of French salons was now on the tongue of every Bible professor.  Postmodernism  was attacking the Enlightenment basis of our beliefs and driving the kids away from church.

So how do we live in this world so skeptical of metanarrative?  Suddenly, we were all lapping up every word that Brian McLaren had to say.  We wanted our faith to be more about Orthopraxy and less about Orthodoxy. We wanted to discover ancient visceral means of worship.

Or maybe we just wanted to be cool again.

It seemed like over night, emergent was everywhere.  Since this was a generous orthodoxy, you could be a liturgical catholic, a protestant social worker or a balding community church boomer, and be emergent. Cohorts of outcasts formed and book publishers lined up to give them what they wanted.

Buried in my weird Bible Belt parallel universe, I was constantly looking at my Christian friends and wondering why they didn’t seem to care about the world.  They were proud to avoid people and places where they might “get sinned on.”  They didn’t know or care about people far from God.  Loving the poor made for a good mission trip, but didn’t fit into the church’s way of life.  For many in the parallel universe there was only one mission: to keep their unique cultural way of life going in a world that was rapidly changing.

The emergent church asked me a question that changed my life:
What would it look like for the church to emerge out it’s host culture?

I miss the Emergent Church.  I miss it’s punk rock sensibility and its intellectual fortitude.  But for me, it was only an introduction to something bigger.

You see, it isn’t the Bible Belt church isn’t the only one that’s having problems.  The fact is, all kinds of churches in the West are falling apart.  Emergents were right, postmodernism is a big shift to be understood.  But so is modernism and yes, pre-modernism.  Then there is post-colonialism, post-9/11ism, globalism, neo-paganism, worldwide-hyper-connectivity, and one we don’t even know how to think about yet: post-humanism.  The scariest post of all? Post-Christendom.

When Indian missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned to Brititsh isles after years of work in the southeast, he saw that the world had changed.  England and the West were hemorrhaging their Christendom heritage.  They were quickly becoming  skeptical of the church-based institutions and morality it had been defined them.  Newbigin proposed a new mission for what must now be a global church:

We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth-to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and influence of the Western nations.

Newbigin was asking, what is a non-Western church? It was a corollary to the question the Emergent church was asking, “what should a native church look like?”  Re-reading scripture with these questions in mind, I could not help but ask the question, what would be left?  The answer was found in the most obvious place.  Jesus words in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of all nations had inspired centuries of mission work, but the phrase at the end of the sentence seemed to be often ignored:

teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

The answer was seemed startlingly simple: A church is a group of people who are doing the things that Jesus commanded them to do.  Could it really be that simple?

Tony Jones rightly points out that missional means nothing because everyone claims to be missional. He’s seen this happen before as the Emergent movement got watered down and sidetracked.  And this bothers me, too.  There are people who call themselves mission who teach things I fundamentally disagree with.

But I believe Tony’s argument lacks substance.  He’s avoiding the two questions that drive the missional conversation:

  1. From creation to new creation, what is God up to? 
  2. What does it mean to join him in that?

I wasn’t sad to see the term emergent fall to the wayside, and I can already see that the term missional has its shelf life.  But call them what you will, these questions cannot be ignored.

I’m looking for a tribe on mission.  To me, that means living out the answers to three questions:

  • What is God’s mission in me? or, How am I as an individual becoming like Jesus?
  • How is God’s mission carried out corporately? or, What does a missional Church do?
  • What does it mean to be God’s church here and now? or, What does it mean to be missional in this unique moment?

Who wants to join me?

Further Reading: 10 Misconceptions about Missional

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