Emergent 10 Years After: A United Methodist Perspective

As I’ve been reading Phyllis Tickle’s new book Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters in preparation for the conference of the same name in Memphis which begins tomorrow, I’ve been reflecting on the past 10+ years of involvement on the periphery of the emerging church movement (if that is what it is) and more specifically what can we show after 10 years of conversation. Certainly, as Phyllis documents well, there have been some new and very cool expressions of “church,” be they communities like Solomon’s Porch or neo-monastic groups like Rutba House. There has been the marriage of “ancient” and “future” (to use Robert Webber’s descriptor). There have been demonstrations of “new kinds of Christianity,” not always at the forefront of attention, but having significant impacts in the communities in which they live and work.

However, the question that remains for me is if the emergence conversation has had any impact on the broader, institutional church. Some will say (cough…Tony Jones…) that there is no future for the already established, institutional church and that we should treat it with respect as we help it die a peaceful death (actually Tony might argue for assisted suicide, but that’s another blog post). There are others of us that understand (which Phyllis affirms) that reform movement often create something new, but also bring forth changes from the institutions that they are pushing against. Have changes been happening in traditional communions like my own? Are there influences from the emergent conversation that have begun to make their way into “traditional” church life and practice.

I can only speak for my communion, the United Methodist Church, but I would have to say that there are, albeit very subtly and often without direct attribution to the minds of emergent. Certainly among a younger generation of church leaders the lines of thought are pretty direct, with these leaders embracing new definitions of what it means to be church, and trying a host of creative experiments for creating Christian community. Yet I believe that the language and grammar of the emerging conversation has begun to spread throughout more traditional congregations and their leaders – leading to a split within the church between those who lift of the old way of thinking as normative for Christian life and practice, and those who understand that Christian discipleship is a holistic enterprise that moves away from focusing on numbers and members to transformative experiences and a great valuing of intensive communal life with one another. This split (lived out most fully at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa) is often characterized by the traditional labels of “conservative” and “liberal” but rather is more influences by different ways at looking at the world and defining Christian practice and community – differences that have been at the heart of the emerging church conversation.

Perhaps the greatest influence of the emerging conversation has been the adoption and understanding of “missional” life and practice. While the church has often talked about mission, it was usually practiced as something down “out there” by specially trained, often professional (or at least amazingly dedicated) people, not the average Joe who attends church on Sunday morning. Emergents understood that “missional” was not about a program, but rather an attitude toward life and the world, something that informed every aspect of who the church is and what the church does.  The former group tended to equate success in the church with numerical growth, be it number of members, worship attendance, or average budget. The latter understood that living faithfully to the missional call of God for their community was more concerned about faithful practice than numerical gain, trusting that being missional would lead to growth at some level. The former approach was most clearly demonstrated in the recommendations of the Call to Action by the United Methodist Bishops, the majority of who had grown up in earlier understandings of church. However, this year several new bishops were elected who understood that missional faithfulness was more important than simply padding the numbers, and already in my Annual Conference we have seen a change in the language about our life together. It will be interesting to see how the “missional” language continues to seep through our life together.

From my perspective, I would also suggest that much of the conversation within the United Methodist movement about moving from program to discipleship finds resonance with, and perhaps even draws upon, the influence of the emerging conversation. While Emergents didn’t often overtly talk about discipleship, their life and practice demonstrated a commitment to being rooted in the stuff of Jesus Christ, that is to truly live out the call to be Christ’s disciples. This holistic understanding of faith (faith lived 24/7 in every aspect of one’s life) intersected with a renewed interest in United Methodism in the work and theology of John Wesley, and especially the dynamics of the class meeting system, which likewise focused on a holistic practice of faith, often explicated pand experienced for some in the Disciple Bible Study program. For many Disciple represented their first experience of a Christian faith that embraced and wrestled with complexity and ambiguity rather than the Sunday School storybook faith that they had grown up with, leaving participants more able to resonate with and embrace the emergent willingness to embrace and live in the mystery rather than insisting on propositional certainty. It’s likely (and I think Diana Butler Bass would suggest) that emergence theology and the movement from program to discipleship happened in parallel with one another, but both supported one another, leading to a new emphasis on spiritual formation and practices in the life of the church.

Has the United Methodist Church been radically transformed by the emergent conversation? Nope, and it would be naïve to think that would be possible. But there has been cross pollination between the two movements, and that hope still exists for the UMC because of the influence of emerging leaders on our communal life.

It’s only been 10 years. As I get older the more I realize what a short time that is. It’s going to be interesting and quite fun to see where this all leads us at year twenty.

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