By David Fitch
The emerging church frustrates me. Perhaps this is my problem because I am expecting it be something it was never intended to be. Nonetheless, the emerging church frustrates me because, over the past ten years, it asked so many important questions, fermented so many good conversations, yet seems to have produced so little on the ground, i.e. churches, activist work for God’s mission in Christ Jesus. Good friends (in Emergent land) tell me to look at all the emerging church has done to promote a conversation that stirs people for action in their already respective places of ministry and social justice. I, a grouchy Neo-Anabaptist, argue that all we’ve done is stir the pot, and then blended in with existing structures.
I want to see communities of Christ birthed (we don’t have to call them churches if your stomach can’t handle that) where true justice can be planted and infest neighborhoods. I want to see places of resistance called into being where individuals together can witness against the consumerist and pornographic excesses of American culture gone badly. Forgive me for sounding like an anarchist but this is what I think matters.
Perhaps the emerging church is supposed to be a conversation and that’s it. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to ask what has become of the emerging church and why? Ten years ago, it was defined by the organizing force of Emergent Village, a website and organization that ran conferences and local cohort groups. Today, it appears to be one all-inclusive massive conversation. I KNOW A LOT OF GOOD HAS COME FROM THIS PLACE BUT I WANT MORE (sorry for shouting). So, again, I think it is fair to ask why more has not come from the Emergent that looked so promising 10 years ago.
This is where I think Kevin Corcoran’s new edited volume Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging might be helpful at getting us at some of these issues. For I think there is something internal to the theo/philosophical logic of the emerging church in the States that almost by design forces all participants into a form of what I’ll call the “Never Ending Tolerant Conversation.” Don’t get me wrong (again); I see value in these conversations. Nonetheless, the logic of these conversations is to be parasitic off existing entities, existing structures, churches, political organizations, as opposed to shaping a political reality (in Christ) unto itself to live under these convictions. This theme is essential to us Neo-Anabaptists who worry about being absorbed into the exiting Symbolic Order.
At the outset, Corcoran offers a summary and assessment of the major theological trajectories in the emerging church of the past ten years. Corcoran describes an emerging church that is defined by its alternative worship, a chastened epistemology, orthopraxy versus orthodoxy and a soteriology aimed more at the present. He labels Community, Transformation, Worship and Social Engagement as dominant emerging themes. The book then provides engaging essays on all these topics. The essays are not simply “mantras.” They critique and engage the issues. The four writers of the essays offer the full range of perspective. Scot McKnight is an American evangelical Biblical scholar who has been in the middle of the conversation (he tells the story). Pete Rollins is a continental-type philosopher from Ireland who has been in the center of the movement in the US. Jason Clark a Vineyard pastor from UK and of course Kevin Corcoran is a philosophy professor from Calvin College in Grand Rapids. All have been involved in the emerging church world for a long time from different perspectives. They write on all of the above issues including Scripture, the Atonement, Narrative and Philosophical Realism, the Kingdom, Liturgy, Transformative Art, Apophatic Language and Worship. In one way or another, these essays, I suggest, reveal some angle on the nature of the Emerging church’s mode of being: “the never ending tolerant conversation.”
For instance, when Kevin Corcoran asks the question in his essay “Who’s Afraid of Philosophical Realism?” he describes the mode of story, narrative, deconstruction and conversation most often found within the emerging church. I still think the groundwork on this laid ten years ago by Brian McLaren and others was singularly important. Yet Corcoran poses the need for something more, some “philosophical realism,” that provides the means for some concrete social engagement (for Corcoran this means addressing the public square. For me it’s on the ground social engagements by live Christian communities in neighborhoods). To me Corcoran is pointing to the weakness of the emerging church: it is a certain epistemological humility that leads to never-ending questioning, deconstructing? For sure, there is an important posture that the emerging church has called us into epistemologically. But if there is not sufficient grounding in the ongoing work in the progress of traditions (where we work out together in history what we must do to be faithful), will it not lead to another “never ending tolerant conversation?” Just asking? Eh?
Peter Rollins writes a few essays in this book as well. To me, he offers another angle from which to view this same issue in the emerging church. In one of his chapters, he extols the virtue of emerging church worship spaces. Here the emerging church offers a way of concretely enacting the “kenotic moment within the liturgical hour, forming a space where people are invited to suspend their interpretations of the world.”(26) It’s a great essay describing the application of Rollins apophatism to the practices of worship. It is proto-type Rollins. But again, I ask, with all “hermeneutical humility,” is this not more deconstruction that leaves us with little resolution on the ground for participating in God’s actual redemptive work in ongoing history? How do I discern this work in the world if I am always deconstructing liturgical meaning instead of being initiated as a participant in it? Deconstructed of history and hermeneutical resolution, can the people of God ever engage the world concretely as participants in God’s inbreaking Kingdom? (I address this issue in depth on Rollins in my recent book The End of Evangelicalism?). Rollins, with his great inventiveness, brings us into a space of humility and chastened epistemology with respect to God. This is much needed in my opinion especially among my evangelical brothers and sisters. But does not Rollins also illustrate the same weakness (indeed it is Derrida’s weakness also according to Zizek and Badiou): that the emerging church often fails to provide the resources to move past conversation into the practice of everyday Christian life? Am I too strong here? What do you think?
Jason Clark provides somewhat of an answer to these questions. He writes an excellent essay on the ills of consumer church entitled “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian identity.” Clark is a true practitioner. He calls for a revival of ecclesiology. We must recover, he says (quoting Simon Chan), “the notion that ecclesiology, the nature of the church itself, is “an intrinsic part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not an administrative arrangement for the sake of the Gospel of securing practical results.”(57). The question for me remains: has the emerging church provided the basis for such a church?
To be sure, Scot McKnight provides two essays in the book that provide significant directions for the emerging church on the nature of the atonement and the doctrine of Scripture. McKnight’s helpful contributions on these topics are well known. I recommend his books The Blue Parakeet and The Community of the Atonement. Nonetheless, is not McKnight really “on the outs” with the emerging church people? He has famously been critical of Brian McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity in Christianity Today and elsewhere. Is this little spat not a sign as well that people who push for doctrinal determinacy are at odds with emerging Christianity? Just asking?
In the end, Church in the Present Tense is a great primer on some of the major issues of emerging church. It’s a helpful presentation and critique. It reflects, in almost genius fashion, what has been accomplished in the Emerging church the last ten years and, then again, reflects on what has not been accomplished in the Emerging church the last ten years. What really interests me about the book however is the revealing of the bigger question, the elephant in the room of the emergent church: can the emerging church be anything more than a “never-ending tolerant conversation?” Can it lead to anything on the ground? I contend we need a new political coalescence of communities of mission in the neighborhoods that have the wherewithal to live in Christ together for God’s mission in the world? The question for all readers of this book should be then, will the emerging church lead us to something on the ground. Will the worship experiments, performative liturgies? cultural engagements in “the way of Jesus” and cohorts which converse, get us to something on the ground? I worry that the Emergent Conversation is too deconstructive, too tolerant in the American homogenizing way, to do that? Am I right? I hope not. I love the people, I love the curiosity, and I love the justice that is emerging church.