At the Peter Rollins event last week in Wrigleyville some rumblings reached me from somewhere that it might be best to avoid “emerging” language in the little commercial Kris and I offered for up/rooted. That was well and good since the guiding image of the “Insurrection” was a fist, not a leaf (and really, in an insurrection, a leaf intimidates no one). But that brief message of caution reignited some thoughts I’ve been mulling over at least since the Dan Kimball/Skye Jethani “retrospective” on the emerging church at Wheaton College back in January.
I only made it to the second part of that talk, which was mostly Jethani, but the part that stuck with me was the effort to distinguish “emerging” from “emergent” by virtue of the kinds of questions with which one or one’s community is wrestling. You can see Skye standing in front of a Powerpoint slide here at Kimbell’s blog—and I believe he was getting this from another source I didn’t note—but as you can see, according to this schema, if you are mainly dealing with questions of style, evangelism, culture, mission, or church, you are “emerging,” but if you go beyond this into a preoccupation with questions about “gospel” and “world” you are “emergent” (and likely involved on some level with Emergent Village).
Now, I’m all for clarity, but separating out emerg-ing (the sheep?) from emerg-ent (the goats?) is getting a little out of hand. We’re only trying to have a conversation here. Mostly what is revealed to me afresh wherever I find this emergent/emerging distinction being drawn is the deep-seated need so many Evangelical Protestant Christians have to draw a line between in and out, true and false, even when the parties involved, emerging and emergent, are, respectively, not-organized and only loosely networked (sans doctrinal statement or magisterium). No doubt, some (not too-tight) brackets are helpful with certain tasks (e.g. understanding confessional/ecclesial traditions), but here we have to wonder if the brackets have become idols (“bracketolatry?”).
Come to think of it, it’s largely this impulse that makes me ill-at-ease being Protestant while highly committed to being reforming (in my case, named after Luther, to his displeasure). It seems to me the particular temptation of Protestant Christianity is to accomplish purity, originality, apostolicity etc. through separation—through an ever-more precise (if imagined) placing of the brackets. In contrast, the particular calling, and burden, of reforming movements within the Christian church, as they advocate for change, is to maintain and insist upon their own catholicity and apostolicity, even while “conservative” elements of the moment are engaged in excommunicating them from the institution or separating themselves to restore the “original” church.
It is never an easy thing to insist that you belong and believe you belong to a group when voices are saying you do not belong. It has been hard from the start for Christians to affirm their basic continuity and unity with Israel, the tree into which they have been grafted through Christ (Rom 9-11; Eph 2); it has been hard for churches of the Reformation to affirm their catholicity with the church of Rome; and now on a much smaller (and seemingly more abstract) level, the challenge is being posed to emergents (folks networked through Emergent Village) to maintain that they are in the same amorphous emerging phenomenon, without distinction.
Lest this problem all sound so six months ago (that’s like fifty years in the emerging conversation), I’m fully aware from Kimbell and others (all invested in this thing longer than I) that some folks are intentionally leaving behind emergent/emerging/emergence language altogether. Here I can only say that this betrays the worst kind of linguistic stewardship. I personally love words very much and I am saddened to see them used, scratched up, and thrown in the landfill like so many burned CDs. I think something very similar happened in the case of “liberation theology” in the 1970s and 80s. North American Christians imported it from Latin America, branded it, jammed to it for awhile, and when they decided it was too Marxist-sounding, trashed it (cf. “Disco Sucks!), leaving the very gospel-central word liberation tainted and suspect. Emerging is a good word, particularly wedded as it is to a rich organic motif, so compatible with the agricultural ethos of the Bible. I really think it’s a keeper.
We can never be too aware that the setting in which we live and operate here in the North American church—at least in its Protestant expressions—is compulsively schismatic and faddish. If we are looking for something to reject, I suggest we reject that particular ugly aspect of our inheritance, and concentrate instead on living into Jesus’ prayer “that we may all be one” (John 17).