I’ve been reading up a little on some of the debate over whether or not the emerging church is dying. That is, I just read over Brian LePort’s insightful blog which tends to argue alongside a few other persons that, in fact, the movement is dying. However, as someone not particularly connected to this debate or with a large stake in the outcome of its unfolding, I thought I’d put in my own two-cents, hopefully giving a bit of a different perspective on it.
The question, then, is whether the emerging church is dying, or at least whether its influence is waning. In order to answer this question in either of its forms, I first have to ask for something of a clarification. What precisely is meant by the Emerging Church? Until this question is answered, any attempt at answer the prior question is something of an equivocation; as it stands, I can think of at least two ways to understand the emerging church, each of which has utterly distinct consequences for the meaning of an answer.
First, there is the emerging church as a contemporary movement, the means through which I’m guessing a large number of emergent thinkers, leaders, and believers take root and identify themselves with the emerging church. This sense of the emergent church, then, signifies something like a particular set of leaders with a particular set of concerns living in a particular time under particular intellectual, political, economic conditions, making a theological statements and critiques within this cultural arena. So, LePort identifies Brian McClaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Scott McKnight, etc., as some of the leaders, all of who have relationships to the Emergent Village and its thought trajectory. I do not doubt, then, that the debate at hand is about this precisely this movement.
In this regard, if the question of whether this emerging church is waning, then the answer might be “yes.” I honestly don’t really know, and I have no particular argument either way. As I’ve already admitted, it’s never been my particular cup of tea, even if I have some sympathies and respect for some of the leaders. Even if this movement is not waning now, however, I expect that it eventually will, which is fine. Particular movements are bound to do just that, no matter how big or persuasive they are any given time. Neo-Aristotelianism and the theological formulations of Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were, after all, at one point considered a near heretical ideas precisely because of how cutting edge they were, because of how radical (a term I’ve noticed, for better or worse, is used quite a bit) they were. The same can be said of the thought of old codgers such as Luther and Calvin, who were the equivalent of emerging church leaders in their own day. (Although, I gotta admit, I’m not yet inclined to consider today’s emerging church leaders Aquinas or Luthers yet.) Movements are eventually formalized, institutionalized, and lose their original power of freshness, honesty, and novelty. In other words, the original expression eventually dies.
That said, I question whether the above formulation of the emerging church as a particular movement is proper formulation of what the emerging church ought to mean. I say this because, in some respect, the only Emerging Church is the Church Universal; and I would argue that one of the Church’s main characteristics is to emerge, making it properly the Emerging Church. This idea is best formulated through Pauline terms (or at least Dunn’s and Pannenberg’s interpretations of Paul).
In the Incarnation (if that term can be definitively used with Paul), life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul notes that something definitive has taken place in the world. God has decisively moved against sin and death, Rome and Babylon, for the sake of life and holiness. God’s holy city was being rebuilt. This in-breaking Kingdom, however, was not yet complete. Just as the Israelites had really and decisively moved into the promised land without yet vanquishing all their foes, so, too, with God in Christ. God had come, decisively acted, and set in motion the machinery that would bring from heaven to earth God’s recreation, eschatologically fulfilled in the resurrection. (Put these types of basic insights into whatever language you would like.)
If something like this idea holds, then what else can the Church be but the visible, temporal sign of, and response to, God’s in-breaking and new creation and the promise of the holy city? In the Holy Spirit, the Church emerges from the ashes of death and decay, and will continue to emerge until the final victory of God, already secured in Christ, is brought to completion. As a temporal institution, however, the Church is constantly moving and evolving, reacting to each new situation as it must, bringing the Good News of God’s work in Christ with it wherever it might be called or forced to go.
For the Church to emerge is for it to be alive and well, for God of the Church to be alive and well, calling life from death and joy from despair. For the Church to emerge, then, is for the Church to be what it is: the Church. So, if the emerging church movement is dying now (and, again, I don’t know one way or another), that’s okay; we should simply ask, as LePort says, the following: ‘what did it teach us? What have we learned (positive and negative) from this experiment?’ If, however, the Emerging Church proper was to die, well, that would essentially mean that God has abandoned us. I sincerely hope and bet that one’s wrong.