Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Emerging Church

Since I've lived through this, a word about names and labels.

Part of being in your early twenties is the overpowering desire to get your noun, to find a thing you can say, yeah, yay, I'm this, we're loud we're proud, etc. College sports feeds off of this, so does the gay public relations juggernaut, so do lots of things that want to build identity among groups of unrelated people. Inherently there isn't anything wrong with this. But it has its problems, as zillions of stories about the verkrampfte attitudes in small, tightly-knit but also tightly circumscribed, communities testify. Moreover, there are at least two circumstances where birds-of-a-feather-flock-together is problematic in a bigger sense than when it just happens to be misused. The first is times of transition, when the old categories are breaking down and reshuffling. The other is when eclecticism or cosmopolitanism--that is, the sampling of many cultures, many labeled entities--becomes a way of living.
Right now, in my view, in the postmodernizing transformation currently going on, both of these things are true, and so our heretofore reasonably useful crop of nouns...isn't particularly...useful any more. Liberal and conservative are almost worthless as terms. The British prime minister Disraeli supposedly said he was a conservative when it came to keep ing everything that should be kept, and a radical when it came to changing everything that should be changed. That's just about as useful as 'conservative' and 'liberal' are today. (If you don't believe me, ask yourself three or four times what belief in tax breaks for the rich has in common with opposition to gay marriage.)
Most "emerging church" leaders have felt the agony of the nouns. When Dawn and I started in 1993 doing what eventually led to, among other outcomes, Lower Greenville Baptist Community, the Baptists who were sponsoring us were in the midst of a bureaucratic struggle over whether people who, like us, were starting to do "different" things around the country should be called "non-traditional" or "innovative." Nontraditional was perfectly correct, of course, although I saw the complaint against "non" names; innovative--well, we might be, but it seemed inappropriate to call yourself that. Anyway, this battle of the dictionaries came to a head in 1994. Nontraditional was felt to be negative, and innovative was business lingo, so it won. But we did not call ourselves either of those things. We often called ourselves an urban alternative Christian community, which we felt was exactly descriptive, but our handlers--well, not them, they were cool, but their bosses--thought alternative meant gay and urban meant black...
By 1995 we were starting to talk about postmodernism. But at that time "generation x" talk was peaking, and we were told we were that. This was even though we specifically made a point that, unlike some other outreaches and new churches, we were going to be intentionally intergenerational--that ours was not a generational work. By the late 90s "extreme" was big in youth / young twenties church work, but we also insisted that we were not a stage-of-life or age-cohort ministry. Postmodern seemed quite fine, since we were working in that part of the culture which was leaving modern assumptions behind--in its New Ageiness, had already done so big time.
But the church planting and denominational worlds can leave no trend unconsumed. By the early 2000s, "emerging," a term I first heard used in art studios in Soho in Manhattan in 1998, was starting to appear. "Emergent," a term from science with cachet in some New Age circles, was intentionally picked--at a meeting of a group of leaders Dawn and I had decided not to get involved with, although we knew a lot of them from their days in Texas / days with Young Leader Network--as a term that was kind of nifty in its meaning, digestible and relevant to our cultures, and pretty innocuous, or so it was thought, in the modern culture of most existing churches--whereas postmodern was already coming to be a whipping boy of evangelicals who to me seem to have been clearer on their French poststructuralism than in their missiological anthropology.
In 2003, although Lower Greenville still used 'postmodern'--and alternative, and various other terms--some of us got involved with Emerging Church Network, which seemed fair to be just exactly what it said it was, with the proviso that the focus was on churches emerging in the emerging culture, not churches emerging in the existing culture (which, of course, many are).
Since then there has been a strong attack by Don Carson, among others, on the emerging church, partly because of his being disturbed by Brian McLaren, who is someone I had not heard of and did not meet until the late 90s or early 2000s. In any case, the whole business makes one not want to use any nouns at all, or to do what Lower Greenville did during its organizing push. People were so gunshy of terminology that we used the word "potatoes" rather than "members"--a classic piece of taboo deformation, like using gosh darn or something. I'm tempted to replace all ecclesiastical nouns with verb clauses and adverbial phrases: not a church, but a Jesus-oriented spiritual community, not evangelism but living witnessly (which is close enought to witlessly to be amusing).

Well, enough in my blow on behalf of the Lexicographical Liberation Front, and whatever the LLF can do for the emerging church. As John Searle says, when I talk to you, I have to use words, but don't, as Wittgenstein said, let the terminology bewitch you: it's the thing we're talking about that's real and worthwhile or not, and while there are such things, I think, as useful disputations about words--i am a philosopher, after all--vain disputations about words are just that.

Peace and joy to those who struggle to speak out there


Blogger some chick said...

sometimes it's not the struggle to speak that matters, but the need and desire to just STOP TALKING altogether, know what I mean?

6:26 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yes, I do. Fair enough. But when you stop talking for a while, which is the only healthy thing to do, but others *don't* stop talking, then after a while the people who know the straight scoop have to wonder if they aren't culpable for not giving the truth a chance.
Two examples. Read an article today about John Kerry and his attempt to clear his name and his record in the Vietnam War. Well, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was one of the ugliest, lyingest things that Karl Rove ever made sure happened without his name being attached to it. Kerry's team, during the election, thought it so below the belt and so tawdry that "dignifying it with an answer" would be bad. So they didn't answer. Yet, perhaps because, as P.T. Barnum said, you will never go wrong underestimating the American public, people *enjoyed* buying what was totally obviously a complete slander. Now Kerry can clear up the historical record, which is not an unimportant thing to do. But partly because of this unanswered and consistently told lie, we have an incompetent in the oval office, which is bad enough, but one who is managed by a dangerous, dangerous person in Blair House, a man who does not believe in democracy or equality, nor in liberty for anyone but rich people. It would have been better, or at any rate could not have been worse, if Kerry's people had responded to that bit of brazen falsehood with some truth.
The other bit is more ancient and famous, and hopefully more lasting. Plato, in the Republic, said that the only people who can be trusted to lead the government are people who do not want to; people who have the knowledge and skills, but are 1. not consumed by ego and ambition, and 2. are disgusted by the sorts of moral compromises normally entertained on one's road to power--the rings one must take from Sauron to have unnaturally long life in the public view.
Now I'm suspect here, because I have some residual desire to influence the church at large and the emerging church in particular, which makes me less than fully trustworthy, even though I have the experience, knowledge, and skills to do some of what needs doing. But Dawn loathes the whole business of public profiles and self-conscious roles of influence. If she influences anyone, or if I do, she'd rather we weren't aware of it at the time--she'd probably rather we weren't ever aware of it til heaven, I think.
Now nobody is dying in foreign lands because of misrepresentations about the emerging church. But people are losing jobs and funding, and strategic directions are being chosen and rhetorical stances are being rigidified, partly on the basis of deep misunderstandings and ludicrous misrepresentations and adolescent reactions and the sort of confusion in the Body only the Enemy gains from.
So, because of my conversations with John Hammett, I'm giving Don Carson's attack on Brian McLaren a very close reading, and I'll do something with that. Probably if people's lives and the church's direction weren't being so messed with, it wouldn't be such a big deal. But they are, so it is. And while it may be arrogant, I do feel some first-generation, eldest-sibling responsibility to younger emerging leaders, not to patronize or condescend or "speak for" them as if they can't speak for themselves, but to make sure that any silence on my part is not seen as abandonment of those I support and agree with, or as agreement with or concessions to those I disagree with. I *do* think the world is changing, and that what yall and Shannon and so forth are doing is exactly the sort of thing to do to try to deal with that. I want to be found on the right side, and the side of the right.
So although demarkation is mostly a personal post, and I run the risk of hated spammers attacking this site, I felt I should start putting up occasionally (not theoretical, they don't go here, but) personal accounts, anecdotes, and perspectives on what we've been part of and been through in the past 15 years.
Now I very much want to listen to your advice here, and to Dawn's. So if nothing else, when I'm done saying my piece, *then* I very much should, as you say, "stop altogether."

9:36 AM  

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