Eulogizing the Emergent Church and Defining a Missional Movement

Chris —  February 21, 2013 — 14 Comments

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

Related posts:

14 comments
Smashpc
Smashpc

Chris, thank you so much for the comment as it proves my point perfectly about the dangerous ideas coming out of this movement, namely to "assimilate" to the culture. Nowhere in Scripture is such an idea. In fact, just the opposite. "Come out from among them, says the Lord and be seperate..." And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather expose them."

Smashpc
Smashpc

My greatest concern regarding both the Missional and emergent church movements is their discontentment with the word of God to transform life. Also, as they assimilate into the culture they mingle foreign and dangerous ideologies with the Christian faith. Is it true that they have keg parties for Jesus?

JessiGayle
JessiGayle

I resonate very much with what you've said as well.  Our church plant has been journey through these stages...I think we needed the Emergent phase to...well...emerge from the traditional settings we were coming out of to start something new.  At the same time, missional was always in our hearts, but we didn't know how to do it.  Our emergent phase helped us to shake off the religiousness that we had grown up with as second nature, and now that we are more comfortable just being ourselves, we are more ready to dive into living missionally, as well as we now feel like there's much more access to resources that are helping put words to and equipping us for what has always been churning around in our guts.

 

Thanks for such a great post!!  (And thanks for the comment over at my 'home' where I linked up.  I wanted to comment here first, then link...but in my rush to get the post up earlier...well...ya know.  So I linked first then came back to comment.)  :)

Kyle_Sapp
Kyle_Sapp

I like what you've said here, particularly the last two questions. I remember being all into the Emergent Church and devouring A Generous Orthodoxy and the New Kind of Christian series. I still read the first of the series and A Generous Orthodoxy every now and then. But in the end, I agree that on some level we just wanted to be cool. We were young and idealistic in those days. Out to change the world, as if we were gods, when really we were just trying to figure out how to walk. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret my, for lack of a better word, obsession with the "movement", I learned a lot from that pursuit and it helped grow my understanding of God and faith. 

But these days, I'm much more concerned with your two questions of what is God up to and how do I participate in that action. And perhaps I would add a third, how do I invite others to participate alongside me. Good thoughts brother

MikeCollins1
MikeCollins1

I'm in. I had a similar journey with emergent and appreciate how you treated its narrative. Additionally, I have been asking myself similar questions about the fellowship I'm in. I don't think it could be called missional, but this tribe cares very much about the missio Dei. Dr. Hopkins said something a while back that stuck with me. "A lot of churches are missional and they just don't know it yet." It is up to missionally minded folks to point out these areas of misison and celebrate them and provide a new vocabulary for what they are already doing.  

 

I really appreciate this post.  

Kyle_Sapp
Kyle_Sapp

@Smashpc  If I can add my two cents, I think this is where we get the struggle between these present movements and other traditions. There is an assumption among some older generations that "fruitful works of darkness" are referring to anyone outside the Church. Whereas present ideas believe 1) fruitful works of darkness happen in the Church as well as outside of it 2) God.moves in the Church but also outside of it. 


And we go out among them as we follow the inspired image of Paul (which is a further expounding of the divine incarnation found in Jesus)  to be Jews to Jews and so forth and so on to win people for Christ.

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@Smashpc  I'm sorry you feel that way. You clearly have an opinion you want to express, but are are not interested in engaging in this actual topic. 


It would be great to hear your about any experience you have on the topics mentioned in this post. Specifically, they are:


- 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?

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@Smashpc  Personally, I cannot speak to your statements about the emergent church. My only personal experience is with various segments of the missional movement. 


As for your statement "their discontentment with the word of God to transform life," you'll have to cite that. My experience is that they take the Bible very seriously. See Christopher Wright's "The Mission of God" or Goheen's "A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story" for two very serious Biblical treatises on Missio Dei.


As far as the power to transform, I personally believe it's God who has the power (although he has been known to use the Bible.)


Finally, all I can tell you about keggers is that I prefer dark beers, such as a porter or stout. If drinking one in moderation helps me build a relationship with someone who doesn't know much about Jesus, then count me in.

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

 @MikeCollins1 Mike, I've got a feeling you're a lot more missional than you realize.  Most of us who have been trying to communicate the church within culture have trouble with the word because "it's just what we do" (especially youth ministers.) Missional Theology provides context for your heart.

Smashpc
Smashpc

Kyle, This idea from Paul of becoming a Jew to Jews that he might win some can't apply to becoming a Wiccan or a drunk, etc. yet that's the justification for many who believe in "assimilating". And that's the danger. The Communist believe that separating a people from their past will subjugate their present and future. Best thing to do is read the Bible; learn it, study it, absorb it, memorize it. That's how you'll get the wisdom you need to discern. Otherwise you'll only be confused and lost in your own human reasoning.

Smashpc
Smashpc

Chris, If I didn't want to engage I wouldn't be engaging you here. The point is I do want to engage. The word Missional is a made up word. Brian MaClaren mixes mysticism with Christianity. Did you know that? You'll never know, find, nor have the ability to carry out any mission God gives you without His word.

Kyle_Sapp
Kyle_Sapp

@Smashpc  interesting, I've never met someone who has said that...although no one has ever said "I became a drunk to wins drunks."Are you actually having those kinds of conversations with people or inferring it? I've heard about people having church in bars which includes drinking but is a huge leap from becoming a drunk. 


And you forgot a step, you live it. That's how you get wisdom and peace from God by putting his teachings into practice. Not by excluding yourself away with some book. The Bible without practice is empty and useless.