an open letter to emergent Christians

For a few years, I have followed and hopefully participated in what has become known as the Emergent Conversation – if not at a high level at least with those around me. I feel there are many perspectives and good things the dialog brings out, and that the questions it raises are not only important, but essential to the future of how Christianity will look. I believe holistic and narrative approaches to scripture are more full and complete than overly analytical ones, and that our obligation for social involvement extends beyond homosexual marriage and abortion. I believe the face of ministry and church will change as we enter into a new age that we don’t truly understand yet, and that it won’t involve changes in methodology and doctrine as much as changes in attitude and perspective. I believe those of us who are experiencing this transition are, at best, bi-lingual, and that in many ways we will never be “native speakers” of the true underlying language of whatever Christianity will become, even as we struggle now to learn what that new language sounds like.

In some circles, “Emergent” has become a by word for trendy, cool, liberating, artsy, non-judgmental, non-traditional and intellectual, and often I encounter people who call themselves “Emergent” primarily because they want to be in, or want to create a place, or want simply to be those things – which they feel they can’t be in a traditional church environment. This is an open letter to these people: those who are more interested in being a “cool Christian” or a “trendy Christian” or a “non-traditional Christian” than they are in being a follower of Christ; those who think Emergent Christianity is about chunking one set of doctrine and dogma for another, without really understanding either one; those who feel like after reading a couple of books or listening to a couple of people talk, their newfound enlightenment somehow means they’re better than everyone else, or at least about 30 years ahead of everyone else, and suddenly treat other perspectives as inferior – if you fit or identify with any of those, this letter is for you, and for me, as I am all too often guilty of everything I’ll mention.

  1. Words don’t make us Emergent. They don’t make us cool. They might make us trendy, but trendy doesn’t get us very far. At conferences and churches I visit, I increasingly tend to run into a group of people who feel like the only way they can be emergent is to use a buzzword in every sentence. While they might explain the Emerging Church by saying, “It’s not a new denomination or another set of Christian lingo”, they immediately then launch into an explanation that includes phrases like “community”, “Christian Spirituality”, and “not a denomination or non-denomination” in the next sentence – effectively doing exactly what they’ve said they won’t do, trading one set of Christian lingo for another, less well known set of Christian lingo that isn’t immediately recognized as such. At times, I feel like I’m listening to someone who stuffed a bunch of words he read into a shotgun and then pointed it at the audience and pulled the trigger – “emergent”, “missional”, “holistic”, “social justice”, “cell-church”, ”community-oriented”, “spiritual journey” – peppering us with words that he himself doesn’t seem to understand.I contrast this to ministers, speakers, and authors who are on the cutting edge and practicing this new language. Their “Emergent” vocabulary is not word based, but idea based. At a conference in 2004 where he spoke for almost 5 hours, I believe Brian McLaren used the word “Emergent” less than 5 times. Instead of trying to communicate with buzzwords, the leaders of the movement communicate their ideas through pictures, stories, and examples. The more “emergent” people I encounter, the more I’m convinced that the quickest way to tell the real article from the well intentioned but misguided newcomer is to determine how much esoteric buzzword vocabulary they use, especially if and when they use it incorrectly.The “Emerging Conversation” is not about using different, new, and cool or trendy words, nor, really, is it about different, new, and cool or trendy ideas. It is about a different way of taking not just Scripture, but the world as a whole.
  2. Talking is good; doing is better. Emergent Christianity, at its core, is not a theoretical exercise – it is extremely practical and action oriented. One group of people that tends to be attracted to the Emergent cause, however, is intellectuals who often are more interested in talking about things than in actually doing them. We cannot be content with simply talking about how much better this “new kind of Christianity” is, unless we also show how this “new kind of Christianity” works in the real world. We cannot say that it’s good without showing that it’s good, and expect to have any credibility outside our own circle.Often, I feel like our groups have become or are becoming associations of people who basically think the same thing and discuss it ad nauseam, instead of becoming what we talk about being – a group which not only welcomes outsiders but seeks and invites them; a group that not only talks about how justice and charity matter, but practices that in our own lives; a group that not only values the struggle of scripture, but embraces the struggle of holy living. As we enter further into the discovery of what it means to be a Christian in this new age, our viewpoints will only be relevant if they work, and they will only work if we go beyond conversation to action.
  3. One of the most disturbing tendencies I’ve seen is our move to isolate ourselves and talk about how everyone else “doesn’t get it”. I think our critics are right when they paint us as often-times being an intellectually snobby movement – I think we all too often adopt the attitude that somehow other groups just don’t quite have the same level of truth that we do, and that we’re somehow more enlightened than they are.I grew up in a denomination that started as a unity movement – proclaiming that we were “Christians only, but not the only Christians” – welcoming everyone to the table, and declaring that we would be people who followed Scripture and Scripture alone. It didn’t take very long, however, before that unity movement turned into a movement most well known for its exclusivity and dogmatic defense of its doctrine – to the extent that we were fairly certain that no one else would be in heaven, and made sure they knew about it.My hope is that this new movement does not fall into the same pattern. It is much easier to throw rocks at glass houses than it is to stand inside and attempt to remodel. It’s convenient to run out of the house and talk about how badly designed it was, without realizing that we’re now standing in a pouring rain storm without any shelter of our own, or sitting in a small shack we’ve constructed from various construction materials we’ve found lying around.In my own heritage, there is a great amount of soul searching now, as we realize more and more that setting ourselves up in opposition to others is harmful to everyone. There is great difficulty now, however, in trying to find a voice and purpose that is positive and relevant, instead of negative and attacking. As the Emergent movement grows, my prayer is that we will not be people who isolate ourselves and talk about how we have it “right” – but that many of us will continue to exist within the glass houses we’ve inherited, hoping to make a positive change, instead of running outside and breaking windows.
  4. The problem with Christianity is not that it isn’t cool. We don’t need to make it more attractive, or more palatable. We don’t need better marketing or better advertising. We simply need to live out the teachings of Jesus.As I look at churches in general – not just within the “Emerging church” movement – for years we have been trying to make Christianity cooler, more trendy, less… like church. We’ve tried to market Christianity, with cool commercials, flyers, and advertisements, thinking somehow that will change people’s perceptions. We feel like if we create a place where people with tattoos are welcome, and where body piercing is totally cool, somehow that will make more people want to follow Christ.At the same time, we often ignore the most important message we send – the testimony of our lives. The divorce rate among Christians is higher than it is among non-Christians – and we try to protect “the sanctity of marriage” by writing laws against homosexual unions? Six million children a year die from malnutrition, yet we claim to be “pro-life” because we picket abortion clinics? We talk about how “our church is accepting of ________” (fill in the blank with your chosen group), while refusing to admit that we ourselves are greedy, untruthful, lusting, prideful and in general sinful people – and even when we do admit it, we seldom attempt to take action in our own lives, allowing God to transform us more into the image of Christ.People aren’t fooled by clever advertising – they will believe in the message of Jesus when they see it make a difference not only in the world, but in the lives of people who claim to be Christians. There is no amount of coolness or trendiness or hype that will fool the next generation, already saturated with media and marketing. They are interested not in a good sales pitch, but in good news – news that I believe we have, but often don’t listen to in our own lives.

The real beauty in the picture of a conversation is that it continues. It doesn’t claim to be the final word, or the ultimate embodiment. As we continue to learn and grow and explore, it is essential that we listen to the noble principles of love and understanding instead of becoming frustrated and angry. It’s important that we are truly inclusive – not just inclusive in name only; and it is imperative that we not become an intellectually snobby movement that looks down its nose at others, instead of seeking to engage and learn from everyone. Finally, it is vital that we don’t become trendy for the sake of being cool, but rather become Christ-like, and allow the Good News of Jesus to continually transform our lives.

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