The emerging church movement identified some problems (correctly or not might still be up for debate). The movement was mostly a reaction to what they argued was an unacceptable status quo. It had promise, but this movement, as of yet, has failed to deliver; and without a course correction, probably never will. The emerging/Emergent church movement has simply become another flavor in the 31-flavor ice cream store of Jesus-following Christian churches.
In America, and elsewhere, a shift is moving society toward a different way of thinking. This shift is most often called post-modernity or postmodernism. There's debate over when it started (somewhere between the sinking of the Titanic or maybe the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or maybe 9/11, as most arguments go). Is the shift complete or still on the move? That's tough to say. Shelves are filled with books trying to describe what it is, especially in regard to religion and faith, but for the purpose of this post, I'll oversimplify it.
Postmodernism is basically a rejection of objective, absolute truth. Everything is relative. What's true for one person might only be true for that person. Perception is reality, so is perspective. Postmodernism is more relationally driven, drawing much more from the nuances and ascetics. Tolerance is valued over all else. It is far reaching into design, art, music, literature, philosophy, and even into the inner-workings of day-to-day life. And in many areas, it's a reaction to the long years of modernity. The Church has responded to this shift in a myriad of ways. Some ignore it, some deny it, some fight it, some are just waiting, some cautiously wade into it, and some have wholeheartedly embraced it. The emerging church movement has rightly decided to embraced it, facing it head on, or maybe running along side (it depends on your perspective). It's at the core of the movement.
In trying to "do church" in a postmodern environment, the emerging church has brought about some fantastic issues for the entire Church to grapple with, grow through, and understand. The first is the elevating of the importance of cultural understanding. There are many, many benefits to growing a stronger awareness of cultural, but this comes with two risks: 1. allowing the surrounding culture to become one's identity over and above one's membership in Christ's family, and 2. the risk of allowing the surrounding culture to infiltrate and overly influence one's theology. However, being acutely aware of the nuances of culture is vital to effective evangelism and ministry. This might be the greatest strength of the the emerging church movement.
Another strength, although it comes out of reaction to modernism, is a stronger awareness that the gospel is timeless and should not be married to modern systems of thought, especially given that the entire Bible was written in the pre-modern era.
A third strength coming out of the emerging church is a greater appreciation of the beauty discovered through the narrative focal approach to Scripture. God is an artist. We, as part of his creation, are his art. There's an idea that the big picture of the biblical narrative speaks to our hearts and therefore should never be neglected. Emerging church pastors have also redirected people back to some ignored aesthetic traditions that can help people enter a mindset of worship toward God--candles, stained glass, art, song, and the church calendar, for example.
Relationships are where our faith plays out in reality, where we grow and develop, where we serve one another. The emerging church puts relationships at the heart of nearly everything it does. This is church; we are Christ's body; not buildings nor programs--people, us. Relationships in and out of the Church are essential.
But the emerging church comes with baggage.
The emerging church, in many ways, grew out of a reaction to the American Church of the 1960's, 70's, 80's and 90's. In the latter decades especially, many in the church have mistakenly married the church to the politics of the Republican party. In some cases, the GOP is the bridegroom. This is wrong. The emerging church's reaction was to sever that relationship. Divorce. But today it seems that for among many in the emerging church movement the swing has gone too far. The newly divorced church (which should be the bridegroom of Christ and not be on the dating scene) now seems to be picking up the party of the Democrats and social, liberal politics as a rebound mate. The emerging church has traded one wife beater for another, and this is baggage.
A matching piece of luggage found among the emerging movement is the idea of finding identity from culture rather than Christ. Many American church-goers of decades past treated the Church like a country club membership program. It was the social club, the thing to do rather than the people to be. On the other side, many in emerging church communities want to make church the cool coffee shop where friends hang out and nothing more. It's the farmer's market, the social club of another flavor. Both sides are wrong here. Church is not just another social club for the members; it's where we seek to meet Jesus face to face and worship him and to invite others to join us. Although the emerging church made a valiant effort to be different, they've still not freed themselves from this baggage and in some ways are taking on more, just in a different color, a different flavor.
A criticism of the status quo is that the local church looks like a suburb of Southern Baptist soccer moms. This is fine if the community is all soccer moms of the Southern Baptist persuasion, but usually this is not the case. The emerging church rightly cried out for more diversity in the Church. But while diversity is praised, it's often not as present in practice. The human default position is to self-segregate by anything and everything we can to draw lines between one another. However, a reaction to one flavor of church was rectified by simply creating another flavor. There's the flavor of soccer moms and the flavor of artsy types and the flavor of college rebels, and the flavor of the conservatives, and the flavor of those that want to go to church but don't desire to publicly identify themselves as worshipers of Christ. Now the ice cream store is more diverse, to the credit of the emerging church, but we can still pick and choose the flavors we like and the flavors we avoid. Baggage. (I think few churches have figured out how to stop lugging around this heavy bag. And I must admit, I still stand in the ice cream store and decide which flavors I like more and which I like least, and I find myself thinking that there's no need for the flavors I don't like. It's a sad part of being human.)
What started as an honest look at how Christians communicate seems to have turned into something twisted. For example, we shouldn't use the term "Christian" or call ourselves "Christian" because Christians have hurt people in the past and it might conger up negative images for some. Therefore, we should identify ourselves as "Christ-followers." Don't call God "Father" because some people have had bad earthly fathers and will think of God in that way. Don't be "evangelistic," be "missional." Don't say "talk," say "dialog." We don't "preach" or "teach," we have a "conversation." It's not "church," it's "community." Don't say "ministry" such as men's or women's ministry, say who knows what. But it's not as if the definitions are changing in actual practice, just the words. These changes may be necessary and are somewhat reasonable only if we take them on a case-by-case basis with individuals, but they are not helpful as blanket generalities for all of the Church. In many cases the changes distort existing useful definitions simply by mixing up the understood names. And at the end of the day, the new words will soon be tainted too, so even newer words will have to be selected or invented. Eventually we'll run out of words and have to face the facts. The alternative is to regain credibility back to the original words. If the term "Christian" causes people to think negatively, work to change the negative impression rather than redefining the word. People are smart and won't be tricked with a name game or a bait-and-switch. This is baggage.
The emerging church reacted strongly to the idol worship of many Christians--capitalism, the American dream, materialism, nationalism, and legalism, contemporary Christian commercialism, mass-popularity, just to name a few. There was also a reaction to the laziness of the Church, that is, failing to reach out to those less fortunate at home and abroad. This is a good reaction. However, it seems many in the emerging church have simply traded these idols for others--literature, art, culture, angst, beer, coffee, or just being different for the sake of being different. For example, social justice, while a very good thing, has become the god they serve (for some). Community too has been elevated above Christ. Here, old baggage as been traded for new baggage, old idols for new.
The last challenge I will address (in this post, anyway) is the desire for the emerging church to keep everything in the abstract. It's as if the avoidance to define anything keeps it relevant. It might appeal to the postmodern generation, but only because without any definition there is no right or wrong or even sort-of-right and sort-of-wrong and therefore, no reason to act on anything. If the Bible is timeless, it should not be subjected to such thinking. The Bible is loaded with nuance and abstraction but then it also brings the reader into clearly defined truth and focused reality. The Bible often teaches that it's this or it's that and nothing in between. The Bible also teaches that there's lots of 'in between,' but we can't have shades of gray if we don't first define the white and black, and even the gray. So I find it somewhat unhealthy to all-together avoid settling on definitions or concrete meaning, determined only to remain in the abstract. The Bible doesn't teach this way, nor should the Church. This too is rapidly growing baggage.
So what's the answer?
I guess there wasn't much of a question proposed, but I'll say this: There are many ways to do church and many ways reach and serve communities. No two situations are alike. The idea that one way is far superior to another in every situation is a goofy notion. And if we strive (as many books attempt to do) to offer a model for the whole world, or even all of America, we'll likely be left with a "one size fits nobody" situation. The status quo has baggage, lots and lots of baggage, but that is because they've been in the trenches for a long time. Some of this baggage should be dropped, but it's important to remember that the previous generations carried the torch this far and it did manage to arrive here even with the baggage, in the present. Future generations should be thankful for the shoulders they stand upon, and we should remember that in a few years the emerging church will be the status quo that young, excited people are ready to reform through revolution.
The Church is Christ's Church. Jesus said "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). So while we all look for ways to design church or ministry or worship (and I am guilty of this, too), it's important to remember that we must submit to the guidance of God the Holy Spirit and let Jesus build the Church. Just because a church in the Pacific Northwest doesn't look like the one in the Western Desert or the one by the Great Lakes or the one in Mexico or Egypt, doesn't mean that it's not being built as Christ wants. That's the beauty of Christ's bride.
*Photo of labyrinth taken by Wiki-Commons user Daderot, and is registered under a creative commons license.Photo of candles taken by flickr user, a.drian, and is registered under a creative commons license.