Engaging the Emergent Church Part 1

Posted: October 7, 2009 by Josiah Batten in Book Reviews, Current Issues, Emerging Church, Reform, The Church
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As the Facebook fast goes on, I find myself less motivated to write.  It’s easier to write on Facebook when I know I can garner a specific audience.  With this, however, I’m throwing my thoughts out there not knowing if anybody at all will read.

At any rate, today I began reading Stories of Emergence, edited by Mike Yaconelli.  It’s a book of stories from different figures in the Emergent Church, including Spencer Burke, Tony Jones, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Earl Creps, and of course, Brian McLaren.  That’s a pretty steller list of emerging/emergent authors and personalities.  The book was published in 2003, but as far as I can tell emergent ideas haven’t progressed much since that time; they’re still asking the same questions, trying to be authentic, and doing whatever it is that emergents do (or don’t do, in many cases).

To be honest, this is my first serious attempt to engage emergent literature (I just finished reading Why We’re Not Emergent by Two Guys Who Should Be).  I’ve read articles, critiques, watched youtubes, and I suppose Blue Like Jazz, Pagan Christianity and some Brennan Manning books may also count, but those represent a very different type of emergent then what I’m reading here (with the exception of Yaconelli, who seems like he would thoroughly enjoy Pagan Christianity).

Though I’m only two chapters in (technically one chapter, but the introduction is very much like a chapter, even has discussion questions at the end like every other chapter) I already have my critiques of ideas being proposed.  At the same time, these people make some legitimately good points.  There have most definitely been abuses in the “traditional” or “institutional” church, and those things need to be corrected.  I must cede the point to Spencer Burke that the church is not always a safe place to ask questions.  I must also agree with Mike Yaconelli who points out the “cultural worship of power and money” gripping the American church.

However, I find many things frustrating.  In the introduction, after proposing that there are many things wrong with institutional Christianity, Yaconelli then says “we don’t talk in propositions” as he describes his church.  Apparently it’s all about stories.  Unfortunately Yaconelli doesn’t realize how he uses stories as the conveyors of his propositions.  I’m tired of this superficial idea that propositions are somehow evil.  The very title of the book is a proposition:  Stories of Emergence:  Moving from Absolute to Authentic.  Does this not propose first that authenticity is opposed to absolutism, and second that authenticity is better and the route we should pursue?

Now Spencer Burke brings up more points that I can reasonably address at the moment.  However, there is an underlying methodlogy here that I think is worth considering.  As Burke speaks, he talks about how mega-churches didn’t work for him, how they made him feel like something is off, they just seemed wrong or to be on the wrong track.  And Burke brings up many good points, but everything seems to be based on how he feels at the moment, or on what disturbs him at the moment.  To an extent we need to trust our feelings, but at the same time, feelings can be wrong.  And sometimes we don’t feel right not because the circumstances are wrong, but because we’re internally wrong.  Sometimes church doesn’t feel good because I’m convicted, not because the pastor is wrong to preach about sin.

This is taken to such an extreme that these guys reinterpret history through this lens.  Burke points out that in the past there were theological arguments for slavery, and for the supression of women.  He then states that, based on this, the church doesn’t have a “stellar” record and therefore could be wrong on an issue like homosexuality.  For some reason Burke ignores the fact that slave owners who treated their slaves horribly did so in flat contradiction of Biblical mandate, and that women were found at various levels of leadership in the New Testament church.  He also ignores the fact that it’s generally been the presence of Christianity that paved the way for the better treatment of people, especially slaves in the case of William Wilberforce.  This isn’t to say the church has always behaved perfectly, I can say more then most it has not.  However, the driver of our reforms must be God’s standard for the church, not cultural climate.  What we must remember about things like slavery is the church fought to change society; when the Gospel authors recorded female witnesses of the resurrection they bucked social norms.  The emergent church isn’t as much interested in changing society as it is in changing to society.  Rather then bucking society to obey God, I fear they may be bucking God to align with society.  We’ve ceased to be a thermostat setting the cultural climate and we’ve begun to be a thermometer that simply reflects it (ironically, theooze.com, founded by Spencer Burke, had mercury as the inspiration for it’s name).

At any rate, I digress from my purpose in writing this blog.  My goal is not simply to critique the emergent church, but to engage it.  Every chapter in this book has questions at the end, and when I noticed this I thought “what better way to engage my friends and readers then by sharing these questions and my answers?”  This way, as I read through the book you can follow along with me, you can learn more about where I’m coming from and see why I respond the way I do.

Introduction:  The Illegitimate Church by Mike Yaconelli

Question 1:  “Mike describes being ‘appalled, embarrassed, depressed, angry, frustrated, and grieved’ with the institutional church.  What has your experience been like?  What struggles, if any, do you have with the institutional church?

I agree with Mike here, I’ve felt those same things regarding the instutional church.  I’m afraid in many cases we’ve abandoned Biblical practice, and I fear that materialism and the prevailing philosophies of the day are too heavily influencing us.  I struggle with the fact that I can get 12 friends to come play volleyball, but only 2-3 to come to a prayer meeting (unless it’s an emergency).  I struggle with the fact that worship is done almost as if we’re nothing more then spiritual consumers.  I struggle with the fact that many of the people who claim the Bible is the sole guide for faith and practice rely more on tradition then on God’s Word.

2.  How often do you frolic in God’s presence?  What does frolicking with God look like?  If you seldom or never frolic with God, how can you begin?

I’m experiencing some ambiguity about what “frolicking” with God means, the example Yaconelli describes doesn’t help.  I think frolicking involves a day by day relationship with God, cultivated by proper conceptions of Him and the realization of what that means in our lives.  This of course, is cultivated by prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines.  How often?  I don’t know for certain, I could handle more though 🙂

3.  What would it feel like to be spontaneous in worship on Sunday mornings?  To follow the Holy Spirit’s leading?  Is that scary is that [typo?] for you and for others in your church?

-What an interesting question.  To be honest, it feels incredible, I’ve done it before.  When God’s presence is so tangible that you can feel Him telling you specifically to do something it’s absolutely amazing.  Of course, it is incredibly scary, if you do this and it flops then you just look like an idiot.  But not obeying results in more guilt and sense of lost opportunity then flopping would in pain.

4.  Mike speaks of the power of our individual stories.  Are there barriers at your church to sharing personal stories?  What can you do to foster storytelling?

Well anytime we organize to accomodate one thing, we set up barriers to another thing.  Deciding to worship bars me from playing volleyball at that particular time.  So yes, there are barriers to storytelling.  To be honest I’m not sure I want to foster the type of storytelling Mike talks about.  I want people to be authentic, I want them to pray with one another, I want people to share testimonies and to speak as the Spirit leads; but Mike pins stories against proposition, so I’m not sure of my opinion of his type of “storytelling” yet.

God bless!


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