Confessions of a Wannabe Emerging Leader

emergentwannabeThis morning I was surprised to get a bunch of Facebook hits from friends congratulating me for being mentioned in one of Brian McLaren’s latest posts on his site.  I have to confess that I was a bit shocked. I consider Brian a friend, although it isn’t like we hang out very often. We’ve worked on several things together especially in the early days of the emergent conversation, and I consider it an honor that he thinks that I’ve offered something important to the conversation.

And yes, I suppose in those early days, I was one of the first United Methodists to the table. I expressed concerns early  on that the young evangelicals (to use Robert Webber’s appropriate term) seemed to be suggesting that they had discovered something new, theological perspectives and ecclesiological insights that had been part of my life and journey for many years. I suggested in those conversations that evangelicals had always been able to be structurally flexible in pursuit of mission but rigid in regards to theology, while the mainline traditions that I was a part of were flexible in theology, but far too rigid in our structures. I believed that we had a lot to learn from one another, and in those early years there was great conversation over where God was leading us.

Those conversations led in part to my blogging, and founding the MethoBlog as a place for conversation. It led me to connect with folks like Gavin Richardson (who would convince the Foundation for Evangelism to hold the first MethoMergent conversation in Kansas City at the Church of the Resurrection), and together Tony Jones and I met with the Cokesbury folks to try and get them to start an emerging series of books (something that never panned out as well as hoped). I had my fingers in several parts of the pie, but there was a fact that kept me from ever falling into the “cool and hip” part of the equation. That fact was that I am a United Methodist pastor, called to go where I am sent, and not always given the freedom to try and start something new and creative.

You see, while I wanted to (and still want to) be a part of something that is creative and unique, some sort of new monastic, ancient-future, missionally focused community, with participants who are artistic, rooted in the web, and with scraggly goatees, my calling and commitment in an itinerant system is to serve at the whim of the Bishop, and the congregations that I have been called to serve are neither hip, nor especially young. In the churches I’ve served, the average age of attendees is far closer to 65 than 30, and the primary means of praising God involves an organ and hymnal, not a djembe and mandolin. While I work to create an atmosphere of openness and inclusion (believing firmly in the wideness of God’s embrace) more often than not I am focusing each week on the basics of discipleship, working with biblically illiterate church members whose growth in discipleship has been abandoned by a church too often focused on programs and not on one’s connection to God. I am, by all definitions, a traditional pastor in a traditional church, trying to move the places I serve to new understandings, but struggling to turn a ship that is on the verge of capsizing around into the shallows where it can bail out and float again.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t tried to be creative along the way. In my previous appointment I started a new worship service called Prime (taken from one of the daily offices) that attempted to mix contemporary music with more traditional liturgical elements, and experimented with a more dialogical form of preaching. I can’t say that it was a huge success, for we never attracted a huge number of participants (due primarily I think to it being early on Sunday mornings) but it was a good experiment and I’ve taken the basic form of those services to several special events with pretty good success. But I can’t really say we created anything that was particularly emergent (whatever that means these days).

I still participate in the conversation, especially with our local cohort which meets at the Flying Saucer each month. Folks like Dixon Kinser are great friends and mentors in faith, and those conversations sustain me in my own faith.

But the fact is that I am no MethoMergent leader. That mantle has been passed on to a new generation of folks, from the guys who are doing amazing things at Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh, to D.G. Hollums, who was doing really creative ministry with folks in need in Kentucky (until the system shut them down). Taylor Burton-Edwards at GBOD has been the most faithful and effective voice for emerging conversation in the UMC, and really should be lifted up for his work in facilitating that conversation through the connection.

I am an Wannabe, at best. I haven’t fallen on my sword or taken great risks to push the envelope in starting something new and exciting. That’s not my calling. No, my calling is to respect what has come before while slowly and steadily trying to shift directions. It’s not especially sexy, and in fact it can make one pretty weary, but it is what God has called me to for the current season.

9 thoughts on “Confessions of a Wannabe Emerging Leader

  1. I want to give a shout-out to Mike Oles and the folks at Lockerbie UMC/Earth House Collective in Indianapolis. They are doing some stellar work, as well!

    You’re pretty cool too, though, Jay. I just sent you an email, BTW. I hope you get it and can respond 😉 Hoping to re-connect with you in July!

  2. Jay.
    To borrow a phrase that I used to describe my mother (as well as my paternal grandmother), age is a number on a calendar somewhere, not lodged in your mind.

    It is what you do that counts and now how old you were when you did it. That means that you are an emergent leader and not just a wanna-be. You have tried some things and you have planted the seeds for future growth. Success in such matters cannot be determined at this moment but somewhere down the road, long after you moved onto the next spot.

    The problem for me is that I see too many people younger than me who are stuck in the same paths that their parents walked in. They saw what it took to get into power in their church and, having reached that position, are not going to let it go.

    I know of a church that formed a praise music based worship service but there is very little crossover between that service and the tradiational service. There is a bitterness that cannot be described. And for all that the members of that service speak of how hip and cool they may be, they still use an overhead (though a number of people have volunteered to provide power point setups) and the overhead illuminates a crack in the wall in the chapel.

    Now this church also has holds alternative worshp on Fridays and Sundays but not of this praise celebration group every attend or volunteer to help with the service.

    Age is not the defining value for what is and isn’t emergent; it is the ability to one to escape from the confinement of the present time and that is not age-limited. Keep pushing the envelope, Jay; you just need to push it, not rip it.


  3. Jay-

    I appreciate both this post and your work. I am in that category of “younger emergents” who long for a church to be as bold as the Gospel. But at the same time, I am with you in that I am an Associate Pastor at a very traditional, downtown, urban church. I believe in the itinerate system of ministry offered by the United Methodist Church. I have found voices such as Carol Howard Merritt and other “loyal radicals” to be strong in toeing the line between the institution and the emergent movement.

    Thanks for your work and I would love to connect more in the future with you. I’m looking for leaders who are a little older than I am to help guide me (and others) in forming and reshaping the church as God would lead. Maybe we can have another Metho-Mergent gathering sometime soon? I’d be among the first to sign up and help recruit attendees.

    Thanks for all you do, brother!

    Ben Gosden

  4. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” 1 Corinthians 3:6 (NRSV)

    Jay, I agree with our brothers: you’ve been a shining model to many in the UMC, so don’t discount your efforts so much. I, too, am one of those older folks trying to help our church realize how much it’s missing out on with its hidebound practices and misguided corporate mindset. We must remember that the Holy Spirit is the Parent and we are the midwives. As long as we respond wherever and whenever we sense a call to serve, God will enact a future far beyond anything we can see now.

    Many blessings,
    Cynthia Astle

  5. Thanks for your leadership, Jay– leadership that continues in many ways.

    I agree with Tony– you’re no wannabe. Working within and with the constraints of the system we’re in and continuing to foster dialog that can lead to a change of those constraints, or perhaps more creative ways of working with or around them, is exactly the kind of leadership we need for a different vision in the UMC. That’s what you’re continuing to provide, and I, for one, am grateful.

    I also agree with Tony about the age thing. One of my critiques of some strands of the emergent/emerging conversation over time has been a tendency to act– again in some strands, by no means all– as if “the emergent church” were ultimately about “attracting” or simply “connecting with” younger and “postmodern” people, and sometimes as if younger people (Gen Y or Millennials in common parlance) were prettty much all postmodern, or even that the whole of US culture, everywhere, had become essentially postmodern. The larger missional church movement has fairly steadily resisted such a narrowing of the conversation and missional organizing, noting the wide diversity of cultures and situations of all sorts of people and the need for varying forms of incarnational ministry accordingly– not to attract others per se, but to be the church fully present in each context.

  6. Thanks for this post, Jay, and for your leadership. I identify tremendously with your experience, as one who has long resonated with much of the emerging conversation while at the same time feeling called to faithfulness to my covenant to an institution which, while it may resonate with much emergent thinking, struggles mightily with emergent praxis.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head when you note that many in the emergent conversation come from backgrounds of rigid, prescribed theology, but freedom of form, while we come from a tradition of rigid, prescribed form, with more freedom for theological stretching. I suppose the idol of control rears its head one way or another. I wonder how the scorn our counterparts have endured for stretching their theological muscles compares to the frustration and restriction we may have experienced?

    As a fellow MethoMergent (whatever that means), I want to affirm Brian’s identification of you as a leader. My frustration with the system has at times shut me down. As one who has done more lurking than actually engaging in this ongoing conversation (be it on Taylor’s blog, yours, following Gavin’s tweets, or whatever), I have come to respect your voice more than my participation might have indicated. Your sustained, faithful contributions are definitely those of a leader, and I am thankful.

  7. Love ya brother! Some day I know that God is going to move in mighty ways that might not make big splashes in the news but the Kingdom will cause the very foundations of the hearts and minds of the world to shiver with love of God by our love of people! Peace be with you!

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