Thursday, February 4, 2010

Emergence, The Spirit, and the Trap of the Klatch

There's been much to do lately in my denomination about the intersection between the "emergent church" and the Presbyterian Church. To hear it from some, it's the great hope of the church. The synthesis between this postmodern and socially-networked movement and the mainline church will, finally, bring in the young people.

Meaning, people under the age of 40. Sigh. I'm not even young by Presbyterian standards anymore.

There are articles about it in Presby magazines, and on the Presby website. Folks are eager to embrace this new movement. Of course, given the rapidity with which Presbyterians do things, this new excitement more or less coincides with the death of the emergent movement.

Truth be told, we're not a particularly lively critter lately. There's some puttering around on the presbymergent Facebook page, and a few meetings of good hearted fellow travelers. But the contagious energy and passion that drives and grows a movement? I wish I saw it, but I don't.

Where I still struggle with emergence, in either it's generic or presby manifestations, is in two particular areas.

First, that I just can't seem to find anyone else who's willing to write or say: emergence is a manifestation of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Yeah, I know, progressives and mainliners get all stammery and awkward when that topic comes up. We'd rather talk about interpretive frameworks and the dynamics of community and a relational church. Those things are nice and comfy and process-oriented. But somewhere, someone needs to be saying: "I've had a dream. I'm feeling a calling. I feel God moving in this." They don't need to be getting all glassy-eyed and Benny Hinn about it. We're just not that thing, thank the Maker.

But if this isn't about God working something new to transform and further our understanding of the Way Jesus lived and taught, then it's...well...not really worth paying attention to. It's just another incursion of cultural expectations into the life of the church. Yeah, it comes out of liberal academe. But if that's all it is, it's of no more spiritual value than the cultural phenomenon of the megachurch, and with considerably less influence. Maybe I haven't read enough. Maybe the forty presbymergentish bloggers whose feeds feed me just haven't gotten around to saying it or pointing me towards someone else who does. I'll keep listening.

Second, and related to the first, if the idea of relationality and the transforming power of Spirit-lead dialogue is to have any impact on the church, then it needs to be expressed in a very different way. Best I can tell, emergent conversations tend to be conversations among the like-minded. Little circles of young and youngish progressives gather to suck down Starbucks and light candles and read Rumi and do drum circles and talk amongst themselves about how crappy and abusive the rest of the church is. Sometimes, those same progs go and klatch with older progs in crumbling mostly-empty buildings. Candles are once again lit. It's all very cozy and safe. It's a fallout shelter for progressive Christians in a megachurch-nuked America.

But transformation only occurs when you graciously engage with the Other. That means making a point of getting out of our comfortable klatches and pushing outward into ones that aren't quite as easy. Can we share the value of Spirit-driven relationality with that fundamentalist blogger? Or that atheist with a chip on his shoulder? Do we reach out to that young Korean who's burned out on the relentless demands of the church she grew up in? Or that soldier who has returned from war with a shattered faith? Or that mom who goes to a Big Parking Lot church because it's kids program is a well-oiled machine that fits well with little Tyler's soccer schedule? Or the blue-haired matriarch of that little country church with 22 members?

Entering into dialog with folks who are Not Us in this era of social media is not logistically hard. Just spiritually challenging. Those conversations require us to speak our truths and have them tested. They require us to listen to others, and to speak the grace that we know in ways that might speak to them. Our faith does not ask us to limit our conversations to those who are us. Or to only value and show grace to those who are like us.

In fact, we're required to do exactly the opposite.


  1. "First, that I just can't seem to find anyone else who's willing to write or say: emergence is a manifestation of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit."

    OK, I'll say that. My church is, was and is, emergent before the term came into existence.

    But like any movement of the Holy Spirit, becoming self conscious about it is to throw cold water on it. The Holy Spirit is not into navel gazing.

    Is it progressive? Well, its not conservative or Fundamentalist. It is service oriented. Worship is uncomplicated. And we waste little time trying to draw a line between who is in and who is out. As far as we are concerned, if you walked in the door it's because the Holy Spirit invited you, and that is all the calling card you need.

  2. @ Jodie: Thank you for being willing to say it. I agree with you that being grasping about the Spirit's movement is totally counterproductive, particularly if you get possessive about it and declare that somehow the Spirit belongs totally to you and is defined totally by you.

    Being moved by a servant ethic is also important. The Spirit is not about the Me. It is about the Us, being transformed and brought into caring relationship with one another. But it goes past the "Us," particularly if that "Us" becomes a reason to hate others.

    I think what's important is not being "self-conscious" about it, but being deeply aware of it. I tend to see obsessing about rules and structures and doctrines as navel-gazing. I also think contemplation and meditation and becoming deeply present in that transcendent grace that tears down the barriers between our souls constitutes a vital element of any movement of the Spirit.

    It's also important to share that by speaking it. Recognizing the limits of language, it is still an authentically human way to share something wonderful with another person. How else are insights shared? I think the presence of the transforming grace of our loving Creator is something to utter an occasional wild and joyous yawp about.

  3. While this is off topic I see the same rules messing up starting immigrant congregations and multiethnic congregations. Tully Memorial is gaining more African Immigrants quickly, mainly because we have a pastor from Togo who does a worship service in Ewe, the local language in Togo. We also have joint services that includes both languages.

    But the presbytery won't accept my fellow pastor unless he takes all of the ordination exams. Yet he comes from a member denomination in WARC and has a DMin from McCormick! So we pay him as an outside contractor.

    We see the Holy Spirit at work in calling us to be a multicultural congregation. Not easy work but important and often fun.