Tony Jones, in his book The New Christians takes us on a ride through his understanding of the emergent movement and where it is going. I have only read the first few pages at amazon.com, but I would like to discuss what he says there as a discussion on the Emergent church. In his first controlling metaphor, Jones suggest that the church is like a pay phone. Pay phones used to be useful as a way of communication, but have become largely irrelevant as a result of the cell phone. He argues in a similar fashion that the church is no longer an effective form of communication.
Has the church become ineffective? Jones cites a Baylor University Study that suggests 85% of people attend some kind of church (he cites from page 6 on the attached pdf file, but does not go into great detail about the rest of the study). Because 85% of people go to church, Jones assumes that America must still be very religious (although we are not sure which America he is talking about…the study also cites that those between 18-30 are three times more likely to have no church affiliation). I would like to spend a moment here reminding people that statistics do not prove theories. We might say, there are a lot of people who go to church, therefore America is religious, but it is not that simple. America is a diverse nation, from diverse backgrounds. Look at how Baylor actually breaks down religion in America:
Black Protestant: 5%
Evangelical Protestant: 33.6%
Mainline Protestant: 22.1%
I think it is interesting then that Jones say this in the book:
“The modern church–at least as it is characterized by imposing physical buildings, professional clergy, denominational bureaucracies, residential seminary training, and other trappings–was an endeavor by faith men and woman in their time and place, attempting to live into the biblical gospel. But the church was never the ends, only the means.”
Notice how Jones talks about the “modern church.” Is he talking about mainline protestants or evangelical protestants? Is he talking about Catholics or those who are unaffiliated? What place do black protestants have in this movement (have their been many black theologians in the emergent movement?). The book then goes on to talk about problems in the Anglican church, Episcopal church, and the Southern Baptist church as if because they all have problems they are all part of the same monolithic phenomenon. But the problems are not monolithic. They are all localized problems within particular denominations and I don’t know why or how Jones thinks he can speak to all of these denominations.
We need to spend more time in the local church and less time talking about the church universal. We have study after study coming out about the American churches, but the unsung heroes are the ones who are doing something at the local and regional level. The church will never be the church outside of the regional tendencies of particular places. We can continue to make generalized statements about what “emergent” means, but I believe this expression can only be realized at the local level within the tradition of denominational churches.