The Conversation


A few years ago I sat in a room with about 30 youth ministers/pastors/workers/whatevers that represented quite a few different denominations and faith traditions. We met about once a month and at this gathering we had a specific conversation topic in mind. The question was, “what does your faith tradition bring to the table that is of great value to the larger Christian conversation?” This could easily have been the start of the next holy war, but there was a decent level of trust in the room. This was the first time I’d really thought about what churches from the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement had to offer in an actual give-and-take with other Christian groups. What followed was a tremendously encouraging discussion.

That got me thinking about the need for more dialogue. The need for more unity under the name of Jesus the Christ. We have become incredibly efficient at recognizing and exposing the flaws in someone else’s theology – and incredibly efficient at ignoring our own.

Recently Matt Tapie (www.twocitiesblog.blogspot.com) and received a comment on his blog that got him to thinking about the interaction between the Church (and even more specifically Churches of Christ) and postmodern culture. He asked me if I would write a little about the interaction between Churches of Christ and Emergent/emerging churches. The following is the post that I wrote for Two Cities, I’ve reposted it here because…well, I haven’t written anything in a while and my brother is sick of looking at the Sabbath logo…

I don’t claim to be an expert on Emergent or emerging church. About the only area I do consider myself somewhat of an expert in is cooking fajitas…and consuming them. However, this discussion is very near to my heart. For several years I have struggled with our identity in Churches of Christ and have desired very much to determine ways that we can add to the larger Christian conversation – and what we can take from it.

We live in a time unlike any other in history in that ideas and words can gain household usage with unbelievable speed. The downside of this is that these buzzwords become popular faster than their definitions – hence they develop a myriad of different definitions put forth by the different individuals and communities using them.

When you add to that the ability for rants, polemics, critiques and demonizations to be batted back and forth instantaneously via blogs, websites, chat rooms and bulletin boards it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a reasonable discussion on nearly any topic without somebody claiming that it supports terrorism.

Matt has asked me to discuss the relationship between Churches of Christ and Emergent/emerging church. I think, with all the hullabaloo surrounding this particular topic, that it might be helpful to make a distinction between Emergent and emerging church. Often when people speak of Emergent they are referring to Emergent Village (EV) – a network of Christians with a national director (Tony Jones) that owes some of its popularity to charismatic leaders such as Brian McLaren. EV and McLaren can be polarizing entities in that many of the theologies they espouse (or allow for) can be described as a bit radical.

On the other hand the emerging church conversation – in which EV and Brian McLaren definitely have a large voice – is much more diverse. While McLaren’s more liberal theology finds much agreement in the emerging conversation it is by no means the defining theological viewpoint – a point that I believe he himself would defend vehemently. There are many Christians and gatherings of disciples that would characterize themselves as emerging – who may even use EV as a networking tool – who would not espouse some of the radical theological positions found in the writings of McLaren and EV.

The emerging church conversation in general deals, in part, with issues surrounding the postmodern tendency to prefer narrative over proposition, ancient rather than Modern, unity rather division, conversation rather than debate. It is not a rejection of reason, truth or Biblical faith. The concept of emerging church is the belief that the Church is still in the process of maturing and growing – of emerging. We Christians are still in the process of working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

I generally use the terms Emergent and emerging church interchangeably, however I believe that it is important for those who are not familiar with the conversation to recognize the vast diversity of thought contained within those words. I realize that I have not really cited any sources in the stating of these differentiations – if you challenge these distinctions contact me and we can talk about it.

Emerging churches often focus on the unity of believers and desire to find common ground in Christ rather than drawing lines in the sand over countless points of doctrine. This is not to say that emerging churches don’t believe you can draw lines in the sand, make distinctions or hold people accountable for the implications of their belief. Some who oppose emerging church thinking have characterized it as simply New Age spirituality, theological liberalism leading to nihilism, or a wholesale rejection of orthodox Christianity.

I won’t say that there haven’t been people in the conversation with an agenda for these things – just as there have been people with the same agendas in all threads of Christian thought.

There are some serious dangers associated with emerging church with which those from the Stone-Campbell heritage can readily identify and regarding which can perhaps offer counsel to the conversation.

While at this time many emergent gatherings show an affinity for ancient practices, there is also an inherent desire to avoid doing things just because they were done in the past. This desire for relevancy to postmodern culture can lead to a-historical or even anti-historical ecclesiology.

We in the Churches of Christ are (hopefully) beginning to realize just how damaging that can be. A rejection of our past begins to erode the foundation of our theology because over time the collective consciousness of the community (how’s that for alliteration) begins to forget the dialogue and study that led to certain conclusions. This can set the stage for a later rejection of central tenets of faith and/or a cementing of practices that previously had been held as matters of opinion.

There is also the old danger of throwing the baby of reason out with the bathwater of Enlightenment. I do not think that this a necessary part of what it means to be in this conversation as some opponents have suggested. But there is always the tendency to develop extreme positions in response to perceived abuses. Emerging churches must realize that while it is indeed vital to reclaim the importance of narrative, relationship and patient journeying, it is also true that some people have been wrestling with the desire to follow Christ and they really just want someone to shoot straight and tell them “what they must do to be saved.”

However, with all this said, I think there are some similarities between emergent church and our roots in the Restoration heritage. The desire to see Christians set aside denominational loyalties and instead unite under the banner of Christ was an issue of primacy for the early Restorationist leaders. Our movement tended to speak of this in terms of reclaiming the ideal of the first century, whereas in calling for the same thing, emergent churches speak in terms of moving forward into a more fully developed expression of Church.

Emerging churches emphasize community and relationship. There is a great emphasis put on each gathering of Christians to be accountable to one another and to the Lord rather than to what some organizational or denominational board somewhere else has dictated. For emergents this is often driven by the desire to be able to speak authentically into the culture where they live rather than conform to a mold cast in some other place or at some other time. I believe that this is very similar to our own treatment of congregational autonomy.

There is increasing evidence that baptism and the Lord’s supper are taking a central role in the worship life of emerging churches – while I see this as an obvious similarity to our own practice, I think that even more so it is an opportunity for us to reclaim the vitality and benefit of these practices (as opposed to treating them as battlegrounds over which we’ve fought or as simply requirements for proper worship.)

I have no delusions that I’ve done justice to this topic. I think that the relationship between emergent and the restoration movement will continue to be not only an interesting, but an important topic for discussion. For now, I’ll end these thoughts with a quote from Doug Foster and Gary Holloway’s book Renewing God’s People (ACU Press, 2006). I think that this statement – directed specifically at Churches of Christ – would resonate with amazing strength and clarity in the emerging conversation.

[We] stand at a crossroads. We can be a church that is very much at home in our culture, a church of powerful and successful people who seek to please other powerful and successful people. We can be a church that refuses to change because we have a corner on the truth, believing we are the fully restored church. Or we can be a movement of refugees. We can flee our success and materialism for refuge in the Prince of Peace. Refugees travel lightly. They are willing to change. They are on the journey of restoration, knowing that the church will never completely be what it should be, the spotless bride of Christ, until that day when Christ presents her to the Father. pg 137.

Amen and amen.

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Posted on August 7, 2007, in church of christ, emergent, emerging church, postmodern, restoration. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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