According to twitter it seems that the emergent church is dead; or at the very least terminally ill. It’s not unusual to see commentators describe it as ‘the failed emergent experiment’ as if a few of us tried to do things differently and had no perceivable effect.
Recently during a facebook debate with the charismatic church elder statesman Gerald Coates on the LGBT issue he told me that the ‘liberal’ church was on the decline. The context of the debate, where some of us emergent evangelicals challenged his stand against marriage equality, reveals that he wasn’t taking about good old fashioned liberals here but this new brand of progressives and inclusivists that are no longer willing to tow the party line.
So is the emergent church a ‘failed experiment’? Are liberal evangelical voices on the decline?
Here are just a few thoughts:
1) It is important to note here how new movements tend to see themselves within the context of the general culture that they are trying to critique. In addition we need to see how the prevailing seats of power respond to these voices.
The recently deceased British politician Tony Benn spoke of how new ideas are treated by the established power base:
“It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”
Although his remarks were made about the general political and social scene there does seem to be something of a familiar ring to them.
During the early 70’s the Charismatic Movement in Britain was fighting for its place in the wider church by suggesting that every new ‘wave’ of God is resisted by the previous one. In support of this argument they showed how Methodists rejected Salvationist, who rejected Pentecostals who were (at that point) rejecting the Charismatic Movement.
I would suggest that Benn’s statement could be somewhat true at each of these stages. At first the charismatic churches were ignored, then called crazy. They were soon declared as evil only to find themselves within a few years as key players within British evangelicalism. (To be fair this does not quite equate with acceptance by everybody as Benn suggests but I think the wider point is valid)
Yet here we are all this time later and key establishment figures like Gerald (at the time of writing his facebook status declares that he has just been invited to Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister) are re-enacting something of the very scene that they experienced all those years ago; this time against progressive/liberal evangelicals (often known as emergent).
I haven’t seen any evidence that Gerald and other critical voices have acknowledged this example of history repeating itself.
2) At the moment very few liberal/progressive/inclusive evangelical commentators are self identifying as ’emergent’. I suspect it is because, as often happens with labels, the word has lost some of its original meaning. After all there was a point when the self proclaimed defender of ‘real’ marriage Mark Driscoll was described as emergent.
In the earlier days of the conversation many people gathered around the idea of deconstruction (sometimes demolishing) the perceived norms found within the traditional evangelical places of safety. Of course being drawn together by an agreed dissatisfaction with the status quo does not mean that everyone will agree on where one should land after the conversations have been had.
Some have revised there positions to remain within the structures that they critiqued. Some have used terms such as missional to offer an understanding of how the methods might change whilst the trajectory remains the same. Others have cut loose from the pain of rejection and found a home in other parts of the church more traditional understood as liberal. There are some of course who have wandered away from a formal expressions of church completely.
Now I don’t completely hold with the narrowness of the old charismatic argument that suggests that the new wave is always resisted by the previous one. I think it has something interesting to say but it tends to suggest that God is only working in one way at any given moment. It think this was a little presumptuous back in the 70’s and is still so now.
I do think however that what many are seeing as the ‘failure’ of the emergent movement could be what Benn describes as the ‘Pause’. After all we have been ignored, we have been described as both mad and dangerous.
3) I also think that part of the DNA of the emergent disquiet with the status quo was to redefine the markers of ecclesiological success.
When someone who sees church success as being primarily, but not exclusively, large numbers, a visible presence, a seat at societies debating table, looks at the emergent church they will no doubt feel justified in declaring it a failure.
Although I cannot speak for everyone I do know that some of us have come to the conclusion that our goal is, in keeping with an incarnational motif, more about hiddenness rather than notoriety.
During Jesus’ lifetime the majority of people on the planet were unaware of either his existence or his teaching. Even within his own culture the significance of his presence was not fully understood.
In stark contrast to this are the usual markers of church success in a charismatic, Pentecostal, evangelical context. The goal seems to be distinction, size, excellence, and popular fashion. Churches are counted as successful if they are growing numerically and produce presentational excellence; with large screens, pa systems, and lights. Added to this is the regular challenge for individuals to be distinct from the world around.
This may not be true of all, or even most of the charismatic and pentecostal churches but when one considers the influence of larger churches upon the rest we would do well to recognise the aspirational nature of this context. The language, markers, models, processes, and visions of the larger churches are presented as the gold standard in many quarters.
So the pressure on many church leaders is to produce an alternative to the culture within which they work. Church youth clubs are funded rather than supporting existing local community venture. Departments and programs become feeds leading toward the centre; the church congregation.
In contrast to this I would like to suggest that the incarnation is more about emersion within the community rather than separation from it. Perhaps building bridges rather than walls represents the way of Christ.
The gospel message in the usual context sounds like an invitation for those ‘outside’ to come ‘inside’ and become like us. An incarnational message is more about a journey taken by the church towards the community.
So if you judge the emergent church by whether it is being noticed, or by the use of the label, or by whether it has produced large vocal churches you might well conclude that it has indeed failed.
You would do well to consider, however, that the questions that we have raised and the conclusions we have drawn are out there. They are in the minds of many of the people who fill more traditional evangelical, charismatic, and pentecostal churches. They might not vocalise it because to do so might be too much of a risk. You might think that they all agree with your stated evangelical set of beliefs but I am not too sure.
So have we failed? I am not so sure we have! We might just be in the ‘pause’, described by Tony Benn, waiting for whatever comes next. You might be surprised by the revolution that has already taken place.