Emerging – Adjective or Verb (Reflection on Albuquerque Pt 2)

In something of a “let’s see where our opposition comes from” move, denominations have been fearing the “emerging church” and yet have a hard time identifying it. That may be due to the fact it is more a verb than an adjective. Consider.

ist2_606279_statistics_3Ed Stetzer offered research on the “Emerging Church” for a variety of groups which was eventually published in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Journal of Theology. The presentation honed in on the “Emergent” stream of the Emerging Church. Ed wrote from a “missiological” perspective narrowing his focus to matters of contextualization though not without some theological  questions along the way. His First Person piece in Baptist Press (found here at Crosswalk) described three “streams” in the “Emerging Church.” There is little doubt the implication was that some were “safer” than others. Ed always noted the good questions created by the “Emerging Church” but generally criticized the perceived “low view of Scripture.” Eventually Ed settled where others have that the “Emerging Church,” especially as it was expressed in the Emergent brand, appeared nothing more than neo-liberalism, a resurrection as it were of liberalism long thought “dead.”

Recently Michael Spencer wrote his now famous piece on the collapse of Evangelicalism. In his follow-up piece, “What will be left?”, he notes,

I believe the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision . . . I donâ??t believe this movement, however, is going to have much influence at all within future evangelicalism.

Spencer may well be right. However, there is a different issue. Maybe “Emerging Church” sensibilities were not intended to replace or take up the “Evangelical” mantle.

Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren seemed to describe “emerging” in a verbal sense whereas others viewed it as an adjective connoting a “new brand.” Indeed it may well have begun that way. I know early participants in the “emerging church” movement who jumped off the “bandwagon” once there was a brand, “Emergent Village,” and “book deals.” For them it seemed counter-intuitive of the whole movement. They too may have been thinking the shift an adjectival one.

Tickle terms the current transition in Christianity as “Emergence Christianity.” If you were looking for a parallel you might think of “Reformation Christianity.” The move is not so much a nuance as it is a signfiicant shift. McLaren used the picture of a hewn tree trunk. Noting the rings of life experienced by the tree, Brian suggests the new ring not so much a new brand looking for market share but a turn in Christianity that cannot so easily be categorized and extricated from what has gone before. It reminded me of Len Sweet’s reference to the “swing” where there is both a looking back and pressing forward feature that keeps the one swinging in motion.

If you could imagine the rings of life in the hewn trunk as always connected to the previous ring then you may capture my suggestion the move is verbal rather than adjectival.  This may be most notably expressed in some of the hyphenated versions of emerging. The -mergent move longs to hold on to some things and let go of others. So rather than leave the Anglican Communion, some undertsand the shift in Christianity to have an impact on Anglicanism and so their group gathers to discuss this shift and self-identify as Angli-mergent. They are no less Anglican, and no less Christian, they simply find the shift in Christianity to have influence on their “traditioned” form of Christianity. Yes, hyphenated-s take the shape of an adjective, but ask anyone in the group involved and they very much describe it in verbal terms.

This does not mean those who would participate in an -emergent group would not like to see more recognition given to the shfit Tickle describes as Emergence Christianity. On the contrary, they would love to be in dialogue about the implications of such a turn in their respective traditions. This is not about “takeover.” It is about sensitivity to new moves of the Spirit of God – for many anyway.

Trip Fulle pointed to the “Transforming Theology” project is a case in point. Philip Clayton of Clermont contendsl there is a potentially rich intersection between “emerging sciences” and theology. This wold be the verbal of “emergence.” The Spirit of God is moving to help connect the story of God with our emerging understanding of the way the world works (sceince), the way our brians work (neuro-biology), and other fresh discoveries that subvert modern Christianity’s synthesizing with science in these matters.

I was recently asked if I really thought the “emerging church” was a viable, vibrant future possibility for the church. I have no idea – I will leave that to Ed and Michael. What I do personally sense is that as Copernicus revealed the need to chip away at popular theological synthesis as we learned more about the world around us, we too may need to make some adjustments in our attempts to connect the realities of life and faith. And yes, this does mean that I do not think the Bible a scientific text about neuroplasty.

More to come …

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