culture · emergent

Thoughts on the Emergent Movement – Part 2

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.


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Emergent Movement – Part 2

  1. If I were only to read this post, I would assume that the emergent movement was just ideas, just “data”. There needs to be a distinction between the emergent movement and the emergent conversation. I would argue that the only part of it worth calling a movement are the parts that go beyond the ideas and into action. There are groups of people coming together all over the place and experimenting with this in action, searching for fresh ways to be the Church in this postmodern, or whatever you want to call it, culture. I wouldn’t consider myself, right off hand, as being part of the movement because I don’t “do church” with emergents, though I might be ideologically emergent. I am part of the conversation but not the movement (this is not an uncommon distinction to make).
    I don’t think any movement has been “monolithic” in our family history. Luther? No, he had contemporaries in the same movement who disagreed with him. Spener? No, same story. Put Marc Driscol and Rob Bell at the same table and I’m sure that they’ll have huge differences in approach, they are certainly different but both emergent. Both are trying in a similar direction.
    It’s worth analyzing but because of the nature of the beast you will be hard pressed to come down with any certainty as to how to define it. But as long as people are moving and as long as it’s in a similar direction, I think it’s a movement.

  2. I have a brother who, throughout the years, has been fairly successful in the business world. His one secret for success: Find someone who is getting the results you want; memorize their methods; and imitate them carefully.

    I think that this kind of mentality comes over into the church as well. I’m pretty certain that for many of us it doesn’t work though and the mindset leaves many of us frustrated.

    Through my 66 years, I have ‘moved’ through ever so many movements. I have become tired and somewhat jaded. Now someone is, (among many other things) saying how to arrange furniture and how to use candles and incense in worship. (Don’t jump on this. I’m aware that this is not what makes anything ’emergent.’)

    I believe in imitation: The part of the process of imitation that is often not understood is the unique work of the Holy Spirit in each and every instance of effective Kingdom Building. We somehow think we can do the physical things that we see others do and disregard the intense seeking and spiritual strategizing that led up to their actions.

    Brothers and sisters: Don’t jump on the next band wagon that comes through town. Imitate the hunger and thirst for righteousness. There is no shortcut for hearing the voice of the Master: Nothing less will be successful in His Kingdom.


  3. Wes,
    I am primarily speaking to the latest ideas that have come up in books that I have looked at and in blogs that I read. I am not primarily talking about these churches that have taken on an emerging model. I guess I took for granted that these emerging churches, as per their theology, would each be different because of their contextualization of their particular environment. I didn’t know that Bell even considered himself part of the emerging church. Could this also be part of the idea that he was virtually “sucked” into the debate as emergents began liking what he had to say? Is there anywhere where he actually suggests that he himself is growing an “emergent” church?

    Yes. your point is well taken. I understand that many times emergence is viewed only as candles and the way furniture is arranged. The pastor has a different tone in his voice, and the evangelical right is worried because they have stopped talking about hell, for the most part, as a future place of eternal torment, and more as a temporal place of contextual pain (at least this is how I understand Bell and MacLaren). There is a stronger tie in for action and context. Soon, I thin the outer parts of the movement will be established (by this I mean those who copy the superficial aspects of the emergent “church” with music, candles, and furniture organized in a certain way). I will be interested to see, however, how many keep the focus on people rather than on numbers. I am wondering, as you are, how many will be focusing of the voice of the master rather than voice of emergence.

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