Despite the Christmas vacation away from my computer screen, I’ve followed a bit of the blog banter around Andrew Jones’ (aka Tall Skinny Kiwi) blog post declaring the end-date of the Emerging Church Movement. What I say below is in no means a way to throw criticism back in Andrew’s face, as he has brought up thoughts and questions I’ve shared in the past year. Rather it’s a way of processing what this point in our history as a movement means for all of us—those of us who have been around a while, as well as those of us who are just beginning.
I stumbled into this conversation as an eighteen year old college freshman in Waco, Texas. A few short years later, I felt as if I’d accidentally been placed among a fabulous group of people who happened to be sitting on top of a revolutionary volcano. It was thrilling, and sexy, and I quite literally believed that we were going to change the world. I can recall that feeling like it was yesterday.
Since then, I’ve gotten a seminary degree, had two children, and I now pastor a church that just celebrated its tenth year as one of the first independent emerging communities of faith. This is the part of the love story where you begin to wear your proverbial curlers to bed.
The truth is, everybody loves the beginning of a revolution. (Well, at least those of us who enjoy playing the part of the revolutionaries!) You have the distinct honor of experiencing and witnessing a slew of firsts- and sometimes being one, too. You get the thrill of telling people ideas they haven’t heard before and watching their expressions as little fireworks go off in their heads (for better and for worse). But no revolution stays in its honeymoon period forever. At some point, you have to come home and start the hard work of actually making a life together, and you have to do it out of the banality of everyday things like grocery lists and flu season and tax day. You have to hold a church gathering when you’re feeling uninspired to create new cutting-edge stations. You have to figure out a way to make ends meet on a shoestring budget. You have to find pastoral words of wisdom not for yet another person going through a postmodern faith crisis (“I’ve got plenty of thoughts on that! I can help!”) but someone who just lost a loved one to cancer. None of those concessions mean that you are giving up the revolution any more than returning from the honeymoon means you’re giving up the marriage. It means you believe in this thing deeply enough to stick around, even when the thrill of that first kiss has dissipated.
I’ll freely admit- I went through a time of mourning that the sexiness of the new revolution is likely behind us. Those were some great moments. But then one day, something beautiful dawned on me: the reason why it doesn’t feel as new and cutting edge anymore is because it worked. These new ideas actually infiltrated such strange and previously unheard-of places as Bible colleges (who would have thought in 1999 that ANY place, much less a Bible college, would offer a degree in emerging church studies???) and denominational headquarters (whoever would have thought we’d gain the appreciative ear of the Archbishop of CANTERBURY?!) and the shelves of Barnes and Noble (who’d have guessed this conversation would produce stacks and stacks of books that publishers wanted to buy and readers wanted to purchase?!). Who knew that there would be so many communities of faith across the GLOBE putting this theology and ecclesiology into practice for people trying to find a way to follow Jesus?
If Andrew thinks that 2009 is the year the emerging church conversation ceased to be controversial, it’s because we have convinced enough of the status quo that we’re right.
I remember a moment in 2004 at the National Pastors Convention/Emergent Convention in Nashville when Doug Pagitt and I were walking down the hallway. The evening general sessions were both underway, and as we walked past the door of the NPC session, we noticed there was an artist painting live on stage, and a camera was showing his work and displaying it up on huge video screens overhead for all to see. We looked at each other, wide-eyed. Even though we may not have understood how they were using art in their main session, the fact that they were using art was a remarkable sign that they had been listening to us. We realized that our call for having the arts become a more recognizable part of our worship life together struck a chord with people, and as such, there would be no way to control how/why others would apply this to their own lives and circumstances. There is both awe and frustration in a realization like that.
Once a movement actually gets accepted into the mainstream, new problems arise. Sometimes the controversial ideas get domesticated into institutional structures. Sometimes the controversial theology stops short of making enough waves. Sometimes we get lazy and think we’ve reached the finish line far too early on. Sometimes the indie group hits it big and its original die-hard fans cry sellout. We started a revolution, and we cannot control what people do with the ideas. And sometimes, what people do with our beloved revolutionary ideas will make us want to pull our hair out. But in that is a sense of accomplishment, too- we said something that has inspired action, even if it wasn’t what we had bargained for.
The revolution we now call the emerging church movement may not be as sexy as it once was. It may not be feeding our endless obsession for what’s new and what’s next. It may not have arrived in current form the way we had wanted or anticipated. It may not be stroking our egos as much as it used to, now that some random guy on the streets of Dallas can probably define “missional” without our help. But it is far from over.
As someone who is driven by challenges, I like to look at our current chapter in this global emerging church revolution in a different way. Now that we’ve gained a following, our challenge to be revolutionary is more important, and more difficult, than ever. Now we must figure out a way to push the envelope in the middle of something that’s become familiar, to try to redefine church when everyone assumes they know the answer already, to speak poignantly enough so as not to be confused with the pre-fab, boxed kit, marketed products now sitting on the 50% off table. We got the audience we wanted, complete with a readily listening ear. Now what will we tell them?
When women gained the right to vote, nobody said the suffragette movement was over. They said the suffragette movement was successfully accomplished. If 2009 is an end-date, it’s that our hopes of gaining influence among church leaders and Jesus followers has been rousingly, beautifully, Spirit-infusingly, globally accomplished. All those women who were active suffragettes didn’t go home and put up their sneakers after their big win, either. They sat down at a table with their friends and said, “Okay, one down. Now what next?” That’s where we are right now, and I personally believe we have plenty of work left to be done. We have institutional structures that still desperately need reform. (Just because the Archbishop likes us doesn’t mean we couldn’t say a few more words he needs to hear!) We have theology that is broken and tired and unhelpful that desperately needs to be revisioned, rethought, reinvented. We have communities of faith (and pastors leading them) who still need examples of how to live sustainably and holistically. And I’m certain we each know plenty of people who are just trying to find a way forward in faith, still trying to ask the simplest, most important question of all (and I’d suggest it’s the question we all must ask ourselves, over and over again): How do I follow Jesus faithfully in this world in which I live?
When I think of all the questions facing us as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, I get both giddy and dizzy at all the new ground we’ll get to cover- and that we’ll need to cover. And I know, as we start to ask those questions and come up with our first round of answers, there will still be people joining this conversation who have yet to hear the word “missional” and others who could really use some help in re-envisioning their church gathering to reflect a change from hierarchy to web. Somebody’s going to need friends to discuss how great the idea of perichoresis is and how brilliantly Moltmann applies it to our ecclesial shared life (and that person should call me!). Someone is going to read one of these Emergent books for the first time while browsing through Barnes and Noble and need a cohort of people to walk with through each of the questions it raises. Someone is going to need a friend and fellow companion to walk this road. And the beautiful, Spirit-drenched truth is that we have friends to recommend, and churches and communities of faith where we can send them, and books we can give them, and a map of cohorts we can offer up. And as sexy as it was fifteen years ago, we didn’t have any of that on our side. If our goal in this movement is to help people follow Jesus better in our current world, we’ve created entire networks of friendships and artifacts that can be of great comfort and help. We’ve become that married couple who has the weight of all those beautiful memories on its side, even if it’s added a few extra pounds.
As I survey my own experience of this movement over the last decade+, there are some things I’d change and some things I hope to change. But overall, I feel incredibly proud and humbled to have been a tiny, tiny part of what the Spirit is doing in our midst. Our conversation may have taken flight, but our aerial journey is far from being ready to land. Call me a revolutionary, but I’ve still got plenty of feathers I plan on ruffling.