Reflections from Emergence Now

Emergent Tree

Warning gentle reader  – this blog is longer than my usual post and I may ramble at times due to the enormous amount information with which my neurons were infused last week.

Thanks to the hospitality of Sarah Erickson, Director of Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of spending two and a half days with faith leaders who are trying to wrap their hearts and heads around a movement we’ve heard so much about – Emergent Church.  Columbia hosted the conference called Emergence Now, featuring Phyllis Tickle, Tony Jones, Philip Clayton and Bruce Reyes-Chow.  I signed up to attend so I could meet and learn with people from around the region who would be coming to hear about how church is changing in the 21st century.  I also had the immense pleasure of hosting a reception for progressive faith leaders on behalf of The Beatitudes Society.  (This one blog is not enough and you can read  my other musings here – Circuit Rider’s Post.

There is so much to share about what my ears heard and my eyes saw. There were worship team leaders, pastors from churches big and small, seminary students and even a couple of nerds like me.   Primarily the audience was made up of middle age white folks - nearly equal parts male and female.   Just left of center there stood a projection screen on which we saw the requisit amount of KeyNote presentations driven by iPhones and a constant stream of Tweets from the audience in the room and even some from folks who could not attend but even so were present. Oh and the speakers were wonderful, even brilliant.   What was said about Emergent Christianity?  Well a lot more than I can relate here but here are some highlights (and how I understood them).

Phyllis Tickle shared with us her understanding of the cycles of history where-in great shifts in understanding and culture occur every 500 years.  She then explores the three great ages (of 200 years each) first articulated by the mystics – age of God the Father, age of God the son and Age of God the Spirit.  Phyllis offers that we are, since about 2000, in the age of God the Spirit  where all authority will be mediated by experience and direct contact. 

Philip Clayton,  brilliant and deft, took us on a bit of a scientific journey where we explored how life itself, the planet over, is about emergence.  From ice crystals to human fingerprints – all life is new and changing.  The one constant in all the universe is change.  The church is no different and this can be embraced with joy or resisted in fear but change will occur regardless. 

An audience member contributed – Jesus said “Behold for I make all things new NOT behold I make all new things.  This can be heard that all things will change, will be new, evolve.  And not jut once, over 2000 years ago are all things made new if we believe (and I do) that Christ is present and active in the world today.

Tony Jones  offered a cogent presentation debunking the most often heard myths about emergent’s – you can see his slide presentation here.

And Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator for the PC(USA) offered a fine exploration of the relationship between denominations and emergent communities of faith.

Folks came with questions such as how does one create an emergent space, can an emergent congregation thrive in the same building as a conventional congregation,  “how do you learn to preach that way”,  are any seminaries teaching “open source preaching”, what if my congregation does not like it, what if I am comfortable as a highly liturgical preacher, why do we  not see more seniors in emergent communities and so on.  And the answers were manifold  to be sure, but two themes were consistent – there is no cookies cutter way to be, and being emergent begins from within, based on a post-modern worldview not from a floor-plan, some demographic litmus test or a lecture on homiletics. 

All speakers seemed to agree that one of the central questions is about authority – with whom or in what do we place authority.  The answer seems to be that all authority is questionable. The post-moderns who make up the largest percentage of what is being called emergent Christianity start from this assumption and from there emerges a philosophical, sociological and theological framework that permeates emergent Christianity (yes, yes I just overused the word emerge).  From  this way of being in the world they create communities of faith - not because they just like couches, lamps and guitars.  It springs from a fundamental way of being in the world that fosters a theological framework that defines everything else.  Community is paramount and Trinitarian thinking  undergirds  much for it is the ground of the argument for communal authority. Authority is not in institutions, authority is not in the hands of one man, or a bevy of bishops.  Phyllis asserts that for emergent’s the Bible is our authority as it is discerned by the spirit in community.  Sit with that sentence a moment.  Every element is critical. The idea of authority is not complete without all three – Scripture, Spirit, Community.  This is the theological assumption that drives everything else – the decision to rip out pews in a reclaimed Methodist church building and put in couches and rugs and funky lamps or to worship in a coffee house in a warehouse district in downtown Atlanta.  Not because it looks cool or feels comfy (or hip), but because if we are to gather to discern God’s will for our community and the world then let us do so in the world facing one another witness to the gifts, joy and pain within each member.

And then there is how the community encounters the Word. The “preacher” in such a space does not impart knowledge in a one way transmission of some institutionally ordained expertise but rather facilitates a faithful (and yes well educated) exploration of text with the gathered body of Christ.  One presenter said (I think it was Bruce, maybe it was Philip) “Being a pastor of an emergent church is about the spiritual gift of hospitality  - if you can serve as a host then you can allow those who are gifted to lead from their gifts. Be the allower and enabler.”

All-in-all it was a fantastic week, but I have one teensy-weensy critique…

One would think (and I heard others muse) that at such a gathering we would in fact all participants to immerse in a worship service based in emergent theology and practice. Shouldn’t an emergent gathering be also an experience and not merely an academic endeavor?  Don’t get me wrong friends – I am a “lifter upper” by nature – but the one element of the whole week that just did not make sense – was our worship. Granted we heard a damn fine word from Barbara Brown Taylor.  But the worship was the most traditional, bulletin following, prayer reciting, doleful hymn singing worship I have attended in a long time.   Granted I am an experiential  learner, and granted again that everything I was hearing makes sense to me because it is how I feel, think and worship every week, but why not give folks a chance to experience emergent worship with some of the leading voice in emergent Christianity?   Perplexing to say the least, perhaps the whole problem in a nutshell.  There just seemed to a disconnect – a cultural, pedagogical and theological disconnect.

But that being said – it was a wonderful week that presented the opportunity to walk this path called Christianity with faithful people and ideas from a variety of contexts.


A few more random things heard and greatly appreciated by my ears…

Phyllis yada yada’d the Nicene Creed. (that totally rocked)

[It can be said that some Emergents] regard God not an entity – but rather that God is a relationship.”  ~Phyllis

“The goal is to cultivate questions and sit with the tensions. Tension between creating just a place where people can just come and be and a place where we intentionally tell our story – we are not necessarily talking about resolving the tension but sitting with it.”  ~ Philip

“Peter wanted to do what is human, and memorialize the thin place – lets build a church, a seminary, a plaque – Jesus does not do that – no time for that – no stopping to build to memorialize the transfiguration.  In this passage we see the human need to build … Our task is to wrestle with the tension of our desire to build a memorial and to keep moving as God calls us forward”  ~Tony

“If facebook were a nation it would be the fourth largest in the world.” ~Bruce

Here are a few resources mentioned during the week (in no particular order).

Preaching Reimagined – Doug Pagitt

HarveyCox – The Future of Faith 

Tribal Church - Carol Howard Merrit

God Complex Radio - hosted by Bruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merrit

Church for Starving Artists

Singing the Lectionary

Rethinking Youth Ministry

Alternative Worship

Songs for The Journey

And last but not least - the amazon bookshelf of some books mentioned.


Until next time...grace and peace my friends.