APRIL 1, 2004
Martin Marty recently wrote a helpful review of the first of two Emergent conventions (www.emergentconvention.com) being held in 2004 (Sightings, March 22), concurrently with (but separate from) the National Pastors Conference. As a participant in the event and a leader in the emergent conversation-"movement" would be a premature label-I thought I'd offer a few additional observations and reflections.
First, emergent did indeed begin with a group of what Robert Webber has called "younger evangelicals." Even for those who, like me, are not younger chronologically, this group represents a rising voice of dissatisfaction with the religiously-right, highly pragmatic, Biblically neo-fundamentalist, and generally conservative Evangelical establishment. It has been described as "post-evangelical" and only time will tell whether the gatekeepers of twentieth-century Evangelicalism will welcome it, or encourage the conversation to move outside of Evangelical premises.
From the beginning, the post-evangelical conversation has been enriched by the writings of many broadly identified as post-liberal: Barth, Brueggemann, Hauerwas, Lindbeck, Frei and Moltmann. As a result, the "goodly cast of mainstream Protestants" has been growing, and this year's event was an intentional step toward including a broader swath of the Christian community, as the list of speakers shows. In future years, we hope that more Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, minority, and global-south voices will also be heard.
Many leaders in emergent are moving beyond an early preoccupation with "how to do church better," shifting to a more missional focus: seeking God's kingdom better and better doing "the work of the church in the world"-the prophetic work of seeking justice, showing compassion, and walking humbly with God. As a result, the emergent conversation increasingly includes leaders like Jim Wallis, John Perkins, and others who raise themes of social and global justice.
Meanwhile, many mainline Protestants and some Catholics-more experienced in justice issues-are interested in "doing church better," and they look to the emergent conversation for energy and ideas. This mutually beneficial convergence of post-conservative and post-liberal Christian leaders is one of the most promising dimensions of the emergent conversation.
The high energy level at the convention (with multiple stages and a fast-paced mix of speakers and often loud bands), though called "benumbing" by Dr. Marty, is welcome refreshment for many who find the dullness of their home churches benumbing in other ways. Nevertheless, the question remains: to what degree does this energy flow from pop culture hype (rock concerts with fog machines, etc.) or from genuine spiritual vibrancy? The gathering's emphasis on spiritual disciplines/practices (many from historic Catholic monastic sources) is a hopeful sign that "loud and flashy" is a surface distraction and not the deeper core of emergent spirituality.
The observation that, "Few voices spoke up for, pointed to, or reminded folks that the Christian Church has a tradition, and that many things happened between the birth of the church and March 10, 2004" may be more characteristic of some speakers from the National Pastors Conference than those from the Emergent Convention. In fact, I observed several main session speakers-most notably Robert Webber and Phyllis Tickle- emphasizing these very things.
But, no doubt, there is a tension between these more reflective voices and "some participants [who] trashed the hymnody, worship forms, liturgies, theological formulations, and historical moments of the intervening twenty centuries." This tension itself is instructive, telling us that while we need to hold, respect, and treasure our heritage, we must also not be tyrannized by it. I know that the emergent leadership seeks to pursue this difficult balance more skillfully in the future.
Emergent's linkage to the current "historical moment" can be a strength or, without adequate reflection, a weakness. These worries are shared by many in the emergent leadership. We are seeking to shift the focus from pragmatics, fads, and religious marketing to deeper theological concerns about what the gospel is and what hope it brings the world in Christianity's third millennium. The voices of theologians like Stan Grenz, Jack Caputo, and Jo-Ann Badley are, for this reason, important ones.
If "the dedication and devotion," "energy and diversity of faith" observed at these events can be successfully integrated with deepening theological and historical reflection-along with a rising concern for global justice-the emergent conversation could indeed become a movement of interest and value to the church at large, in its evangelical, pentecostal, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox forms.
When the right voices have gathered around the table and the conversation has seasoned and matured, the emergent community can indeed become a movement of good news in our world.
Brian McLaren is pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. He is the author of A New Kind of Christian and a fellow in emergent (www.emergentvillage.com).