Special Report

Emergent Church No Longer Emerging?

Postmodern Baby Boomer religiosity tends to run out of steam.

By 5.27.10

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The "emergent church" is a loosely defined and even less organized force of postmodern evangelicals who emphasize community over Christian doctrine. Having mostly arisen a decade or more ago, and appealing primarily to twenty and thirtysomethings, emerging church types reject the traditional moralism of older conservative evangelicals.

In its place, they sometimes erect a new moralism built around environmentalism, diet, exercise, or social justice. They also react against the perceived liturgical sterility of Baby Boomer evangelicalism, with its shopping center style mega-churches, sometimes sacramental indifference, and hyper-Protestant rejection of traditional Christian symbolism and mysticism.

Rejecting much of "modernity," emergents often emphasize ancient Christian symbols and practices involving candles, icons, a frequent Eucharist, Gregorian chants, and stained glass. They also shy away from culturally confrontational issues like abortion and homosexuality and stress community and dialogue over dogma. While still loosely evangelical and often emphasizing Trinitarians, emergents are inclined towards a "generous" orthodoxy that more straight-laced Christians discern as permissive if not heretical. Emergents are stereotypically associated with soul patches, body piercings, black clothing, and coffee houses. Though too young to remember Beatniks, or Jack Kerouac, they stylistically often aspire to be their more spiritual descendants.

Unsurprisingly, emergents are typically left-wing in their political voice, though they almost uniformly insist they are non-ideological. Former suburban Maryland pastor Brian McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy, and leader of the "Emergent Village," is a prominent emergent voice and close ally of Evangelical Left chieftain Jim Wallis. Wallis's Sojourners magazine recently provocatively asked: "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?"

Sojourners' writers critically noted that the public face of emergents is primarily young white males with "trendy clothing, sporting cool hairstyles and eyewear." But one writer despaired that despite its ostensible coolness, the emerging "postmodern church was simply the pierced and tattooed offspring of its older, modern parents."

Perhaps the emerging church has already fully emerged and will now submerge back into postmodern obscurity. Sojourners quotes a sarcastic "obituary" earlier this year for emergents that eulogized their "many advances in the Christian church, including facial hair, tattoos, fair trade coffee, candles, couches in sanctuaries, distortion pedals, Rated R movie discussions, clove cigarettes and cigars, beer, and use of Macs."

Is, or was, the emerging church merely a passing fad primarily for bored yuppies smugly unhappy with their conventional suburban churches and pining for a spiritual theater more hip and supposedly more relevant? One Sojourners writer, quoting a blogger, credited emergents for their contributions to "women's issues, conversations about sexuality, environmentalism, anti-foundationalism, [and] social justice." But those "conversations" have been mainly only that. Not for nothing do emergents usually insist they are not a movement but a "community" or an ongoing "conversation."

Brian McLaren himself, in his own short piece for Sojourners, readily agreed with the need to "shift away from white, Western, male hegemony and homogeneity." He also wants to emphasize that while the "the postmodern conversation" occurs in the West, the global South is more interestingly having its "postcolonial conversation." It's not clear exactly what McLaren means by "postcolonial." Now a frequent speaker to liberal Episcopal Church audiences, he almost certainly does not sympathize with global South Christians rebelling against liberal Western church sexual and theological trends.

More revealingly, McLaren noted that "theological conversations about the shape and purpose of the gospel, along with issues of justice -- racial, environmental, and economic -- are far more urgent and important than arguments about what goes on in church services, as valuable as church services are." Himself a Baby Boomer guru for mostly much younger emergents, McLaren has become increasingly a Jim Wallis-type Social Gospel proponent who prefers activism to doctrine. Championing Palestinian liberation and Obamacare have been two of his most recent causes.

Far more biting is a subsequent Sojourners commentary from "urban-monastic" Shane Claiborne, a young author and lecturer popular among college age evangelicals who heads a Philadelphia, almost Quaker-like spiritual center called "The Simple Way." He is an Anabaptist enthusiast who urges his listeners to reject the world through anti-materialism and aggressive pacifism.

Claiborne regretted that the emergent church became "narcissistic, and often became little more than theological masturbation: feels good but doesn't give birth to much." He surmised that overly loquacious emergents like to "talk about talking about theology" and have "repeated some of the mistakes of fundamentalism (only with more tattoos)." Claiborne aptly observed that emergentism seemingly "has no real life or DNA of its own," but is primarily an endless circle of spiritual self reflection. He wonders why so much ink and talk is spilled on so wide an emptiness.

Possibly much of the emerging church phenomenon has been the hyped creation of Christian publishing, anxious to reach a younger audience. Or at least the publishers wanted to persuade older readers they could reach a younger audience by adopting emergent techniques. Old Sojourners activists almost certainly welcomed the liberal tendencies of most emergents even while frustrated by their continued adherence, however unconscious, to suburban evangelicalism.

Lacking its own firm DNA, the emerging church seems likely to collapse into what Jim Wallis and Sojourners almost certainly will welcome: heterodox religionists with a sense of liturgical style who define themselves more by their adherence to liberal social and political causes than by their doctrines. As perhaps hinted by Brian McLaren's recent speaking engagements, aging emergents may simply end their spiritual journey as Episcopalians.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.