I have just finished reading Deacon Bo’s great post—a response to Brandon Morgan, who guest wrote on Roger Olson’s blog. In this blog, Deacon Bo asked, in the true spirit of dialogue, for Brandon Morgan to engage with him in a conversation over a series of questions to that Morgan himself asked on that blog. The questions have to do with the relationship of the mainline and emergent churches, which Morgan asks as follows:
- Why haven’t Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations?
- Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns?
- Why hasn’t the Emergent critique of evangelicalism’s involvement with the American nation-state and its tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests?
I do not need to recap Deacon Bo’s responses, but I’m especially fond of the way he answers the third question. I’d highly suggest reading it. That said, I’d like to respond to Deacon Bo and Brandon Morgan alike concerning the first question asked: Why haven’t Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations? I want to respond with another question: why would we mainliners want emergent folk to join our churches? I’ll proceed by proposing and rejecting a few possible answers. (Note the caveats at the end.)**
One reason for a mainliner to suggest this move is that, indeed, the mainline side of this debate is in material decline and has been for some time. (I want to be absolutely clear, here, I’m speaking hypothetically, here, not at all of Morgan’s intentions.) As Deacon Bo rightly points this fact out, the mainline churches are dying. “Death,” however, is a subtle, spiritually loaded term thrown around by emergent folk too often (again, not by Bo in his post), and it signifies that, somehow, God has rejected us and our stubborn, recalcitrant ways. I doubt it—at least not the God to whom I pray. In fact, this death may be little more than the consolidation of over-extended parishes, which will occur over the next 7-15 years. After such a consolidation, there will probably be a critical mass able to sustain each parish, Diocese, and affiliated publishing companies.
But after such a consolidation, I would still want to ask, so what? Why would we want persons to come and join our parishes who do not value the same facets of the Christian faith that we value? This need not mean we reject anyone who does not want to be a part of the parishes that we currently run, nor does it mean that we ought to devalue their persons. However, I would certainly question the wisdom of making any overarching attempt at appeasing such persons and trying to get them to join this particular club. Indeed, there’s plenty of space in the US and, frankly, in the Kingdom of God for various expressions of Christ to co-exist (prayerful aside: Dear God help me for just quoting the corniest bumper-sticker ever made) through a variety of structures. Thus, I again ask in response to both emergent and mainline folk alike who want emergent folk to join mainliners: why does there need to be a hegemony of Christian values or structures, either mainline or emergent? Why must we two room together when, in fact, we could simply be friendly neighbors?
Of course, I also offer the same question to emergent folk who, at times, wrongly seem to believe that there is no room for mainliners within the Kingdom. Thus, I can put the above re-phrasal of the above question in another way, too, one more explicitly directed to emergent folk: other than what I perceive as valid critiques of the mainline church’s over-politicization of its institutional structures to the end of often forgetting the importance of the proclamation of the Gospel, when I hear critiques from emergent folk of the things that Mainline folk tend generally to value—tradition and historical lineage, liturgical and unvaried worship style, community-church orientation—I always think to myself that those are precisely the reasons that I attend, and live within, the Episcopal Church and its structures. I want mainline churches, in fact, to get out of their over-politicization (as Bo mentions) and remember their dedication to their traditions–theological and liturgical–as important out-flowings of the Spirit! That said, I think Bishops are important spiritually, historically, and functionally (with the Lutherans, however, I affirm the absolute equality of ALL believers and give Bishops no “ontological” priority); I want a liturgy that I know, and trust, that allows me to ground my week in the constancy of the God’s loving Spirit; I value the creedal expressions and interpretations of a faith that have outlasted any critique of them, that give voice in a way far more profound than they gain credit for these days in expressing God as Emanuel; and I greatly value the communities who center themselves in service and worship around precisely these things. Indeed, were those things changed, I would go to a different church!
Let me offer up, however, what are perhaps the two most important reasons I would question any attempt at trying to draw emergent folk into the Mainline. First, and on a very critical note, there is for me a dangerous trend in emergent circles that I believe they have appropriated from their previous Evangelical circles–it is a trend, at any rate, I try to leave behind in my past life. They are far too reliant on big personalities to ensure their success as communities of worshippers for me to be comfortable with. I don’t want to be a part of a church that points to a person in the form of a pastor or a spiritual leader; I want a church whose leader deflects attention by pointing to Christ himself and the love he exuded. For whatever failures one can attribute to the mainline, including being anti-entrepreneurial (a critique that I often hear and very much agree with), its peoples do not rely on cults of personality. They rely on structures that, yes, are sometimes all too absent personality but nonetheless able to point toward God, through Christ and his proclamation, despite the person “in charge” of them. (Whether the will continue to do so is a different question.) Unless these facets of emergent life are left behind, I don’t actually want emergent folks in mainline churches, even if I’m happy to worship beside them and appreciate the fullness of their Christian faith despite them not existing within my structures.
Second, and on a far friendlier note, I ultimately think that Deacon Bo is right: generally, emergent folk don’t want to be here. They find spiritual fulfillment and divine love elsewhere. Why should I want to detract from their experience by trying to right them and bring them forcibly “for their own good” into my community? Despite even my harshest critique above, emergent folk are doing fine, and I have no wish to take away from what they have found.
**I completely understand that certain emergent folk do, in fact, reside within the mainline church structures and want to remain there. But, it seems to me, such emergent persons are often “ignored” within the emergent community itself. One questions that I have, then, is whether there are several “senses” to the word emergent, including who fits where and why. Those to whom I’m responding in this blog probably would not include emergent “sympathizers,” for lack of a better term, already within mainline church structures. It would be those who think mainline structure are either (a) meaningless or (b) pointless.