As I have put more thought into the emergent movement, I will push the idea that the “emerging movement” or “emerging church” is a misleading label. There is no one central “emerging church” located around a central theological idea. Emergents are both young and old, left and right, and come from a variety of backgrounds, but it is precisely this variety that makes one wonder if there really is such a thing as an emergent church or if the unity of the movement can be defined.
Thomas Friedman has written an excellent book entitled The World is Flat. Although his book deals largely with economics, his comments are also helpful in understanding the emergent church. I listened to a podcast where he was describing the thesis of his book at MIT. He noted a few epochs the world has lately gone through. The first epoch was mercantilism where the economy was driven largely by nationalistic tendencies. In other words, England would trade with France and things like the triangle of trade came out of such ventures. In the modern age, especially as a result of the industrial revolution, companies took center-stage of the economy. Wal-Mart might trade with Mattel in mutually beneficial relationships.
The third epoch, however, is the one that surprised Friedman the most. He began to notice the amount of outsourcing going on in the world. Spending time in India, he began to notice that hundreds of thousands of American tax returns were being done in India. He began to study companies like Jet Blue that outsourced the telemarketing and telephone operating to mothers at home and started studying certain strains of McDonalds that outsourced their drive-thru speakers (i.e. people somewhere else at another business are taking your order instead of McDonalds employees). One particularly interesting company is Nike. Nike is what is known as a virtual company. Nike outsources everything they do. The company of Nike is actually only made up of about 15,000 employees. All marketing and all other things having to do with Nike are outsourced to other companies. In other words, the economy is now functioning, due largely to an internet age, around small individual firms and companies made up of fewer and fewer employees not bound by geographical restrictions.
I would go so far as to suggest this model is also the model of the church over the last 500 years. During the years before the industrial revolution, the church really was an state institution that said something about the national identity of a nation. Wars were fought between Catholic and Protestant monarchs for the English crown. There were really only a few options for religion and they were almost all connected to the state. As the industrial revolution took place, the weight of the economy was taken off the shoulders of the nation-state and placed on individual companies. As such, denominations also abounded much more rapidly as individuals wanted to venture out and begin new churches. Church no longer had to be sanctified by the state, and a variety of religious practices grew out of this new age.
But we really are in a new age of religion similar to how we are in a new age of economics. Why is the emergent movement receiving such widespread attention? The internet is the primary answer to such a question. A new MacLaren book gets instant success among these “emergent” bloggers. We can read ten to fifteen reviews from a variety of people, and get a good idea of what a book is about without ever reading the book.
But why compare the emergent movement to economics? It seems foolish to say that the emergent church is trying to sell anything or holds any sort of valuable resources, but this is where the subtleties abound. While the emergent church has not viable economic resources, the movement does have significant amount of virtual “space” on the internet to market their views and their particular theological vocabulary. As more and more people blog on certain books, a few emergent authors have gained credence among a large target audience. Those who want to understand the emerging movement must gain access to emerging vocabulary through either reading blogs or understanding the movement from a friend who is involved at the ground floor. Because such a movement has little start-up costs, and it relatively easy to get involved (by getting into the virtual conversation), there has been a large flocking to this new experimental idea of church. But, as far as I understand it, this movement is not confined to one geographical location as past church movements have been in the past.
Thus we have an interesting phenomenon occurring. I can read a blog from Scot McKnight who works at North Park University, I can connect it to a blog from Ken Schenck (who works at a Wesleyan school), and finish it off by connecting it to my roommates blog as Living in the Kingdom. None of these three people may be connected before this, but now they have been connected. But here’s the rub. I may be writing on an emerging church idea (and I may even claim to be part of the emergent movement), and as support for some of my arguments I may use McKnight’s bog, Schenck’s blog, and Wes’ blog as support for my position. These other three people may not be part of the emergent movement, but they are now cited as references for the movement. This is a simple example, but, as we all know, multiply this by 100,000 people who tag “emergent” in their blog line and we have a very complicated (but beautiful) conversation emerging (no pun intended).
One can see how monolithic and yet disconnected such a movement can be, and one can note all the problems that can arise from trying to “unify” such a movement. What we have here is a variety of people trying to do church in the internet age. They have flocked around certain words such as missional, ecclesiology, liturgy, and postmodern. Anyone who seeks to understand such a movement will be hardpressed to work through all the data (i.e. the multiplicity of books, bloggers, and people who subscribe to emergent theology or from those who pick and choose various parts of emergent theology to hold onto). I myself have only dabbled in emergent theology, but I have found the distinct flavor, theology, and vocabulary of the emergent church quite interesting.
I hope if those who have spent more time in the emergent church can correct me if they think I have erred in attempting to try and understand the emergent movement.