Anabaptism and Emergence: Collision or Convergence
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention that the world is not the place it once was. Laptops, cell phones, Ipods, and Blackberries are ubiquitous today, but unheard of just twenty years ago. Today almost everyone has a Facebook or MySpace account. Billions of instant messages, texts, and tweets are sent every day, and over 90 million Google searches are performed daily. The popularity of computer gaming is at an all-time high. Even those in elder care homes love the Wii. Advances in genetics and medical science have raised ethical dilemmas once unimaginable.
The Emerging Church shows us that Anabaptism is still attractive
The area of religion has also seen significant changes as churches have struggled to compete with the high-tech, professional performances in mega-church worship services. Moreover, beliefs and moral positions that were once regarded as unquestionably true and right are being thrown into intellectual and theological limbo. Philosophical, scientific, political, economic, religious, and technological developments are joining forces to drastically alter the way people understand faith, church, themselves, and even how the world is put together.
Different people react to such radical changes in different ways. Some quickly adapt while others fight to keep their world the same at all costs. Some find themselves in the middle, cautiously seeking to understand their new world but weighing it against where they’ve been before. And just like people, different churches and denominations have different reactions to a world that seems to be changing around them incessantly.
THE DEATH OF CHRISTENDOM
One of the most significant changes to have occurred over the last 150 years is the demise of Christendom, that is, the end of Christianity as the dominant cultural force in Western societies. “Secularization” is the term often attached to this steady decline. Christendom has been virtually dead in Europe since the end of World War I. But even the very religious U.S. is seeing a significant weakening of Christianity’s cultural grip. As a reaction against this development, some conservative groups have mounted massive drives to re-establish the cultural influence of Christianity through legislation, media campaigns, and other large-scale means. Nevertheless, the attempt to re-assert control is a concrete sign that Christian control of society is slipping away.
Our world, we are told, is a postmodern world in which confidence in the ability of science, reason, and the traditional social, political, and religious institutions to solve our problems and to lead us to an ever better future has been lost. The preference for “spirituality” rather than religion is one expression of postmodern disdain for traditional religion. These attitudes and others are playing a large role in shaping the post-Christendom world, and their influence is quite possibly the most intriguing, yet terrifying force the church must contend with. But the intersection of Christianity and postmodernity has also produced creatively Christian adaptations to postmodernism. The controversial Emerging Church is one high-profile example of such creative adjustment to the new cultural reality.
In the discussion that follows, I will argue that the Emerging Church shares many characteristics and important ecclesiological and theological convictions with a movement that arose in an earlier “great” cultural upheaval: sixteenth-century Anabaptism. I shall also identify what the Emerging Church might learn from Anabaptism, and what we, the contemporary ancestors of the early Anabaptists, might learn from the Emerging Church about responding to the postmodern age.
To understand the global phenomenon of the Emerging Church, we must first define some terms. The term “postmodernism” is often mistakenly equated with absolute relativism, the idea that no such thing as universal truth exists, that everything that we call truth—our ethics, our definitions of right and wrong, even our faith and concept of God—are products of a Western worldview. Since these products are particular to Western culture—just as every non-Western culture has its own ways of defining and arriving at truth, its own system of morality and so on—we are wrong to think that we may judge the practices or beliefs of other cultures or impose our values on them.
One can easily see how absolute relativism might be problematic for Christianity—a religion that claims to follow someone known as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
But this definition of postmodernism more correctly defines hyper-modernism, i.e., modernism taken to its extreme. Modernism, which began with the Enlightenment, took it as a basic truth that the world could be objectively known when observers submitted themselves to the discipline of scientific methods. It was the scientific method of empirical observation and tightly-controlled experimentation that led to the subsequent technological advancements for which our age is known. The success of that method in discovering new knowledge of the natural world led to its application to the study of other cultures and worldviews, again on the assumption that one could (and should) know them objectively, i.e., without bias, as they “really” are. Inevitably, the same method and objective ideal was turned on the worldview of Modernism itself, yielding the conclusion that it was simply one way among many others of perceiving the world. Modernism cannot escape the conclusion that we all are trapped within our own cultural assumptions and ultimately can never know anything as it “actually” is, in and of itself. We only see what our cultural lenses allow us to see. And so the final scientific finding of Modernity is that truth and knowledge and even morality are utterly relative. Hyper-modernism radicalizes this view, insisting, for example, that Westerners have no right to condemn even the most brutal of practices in other cultures.
True postmodernism, on the other hand, looks at the deconstructed rubble of the modern worldview and says, “Ok, is there anything here worth saving?” It fully recognizes that our cultures place blinders on us, but ultimately seeks to find bridges across cultures that permit us not only to share with others but also to learn from them. Postmodernism, for example, recognizes that other cultures view the role of women in different ways that we do, but still allows us to insist that it is unacceptable to rape or abuse them. Hyper-modernity would say that we can not impose our value judgments on others and have no right to intervene when other cultures violate them.
The question that confronts our churches is, What do we make of this new way of understanding the world? While individual churches have undoubtedly begun to bump up against postmodernism in some form or another, within Western Christianity it has been the Emerging Church that has been at the cutting edge of direct engagement with the postmodern world.
EMERGENCE, EMERGING, EMERGENT
Despite the similarity of their names, Emergence, Emerging Church, and Emergent Church (or Emergent Village) actually refer to different phenomena. Emergence is originally a scientific term that refers to what happens when large groups of individually autonomous beings coalesce to form organized wholes. It is the science that studies, for example, how ant colonies function without a centralized leader by self-organizing, or how the billions of synapses and cells in the brain work together as one. The self-organizing nature of the Emerging movement has drawn it to the language of emergence. 1
The concept of emergence can also be applied to broad and dramatic cultural developments. Phyllis Tickle has recently argued that “emergence” best describes the great shift in human thinking and believing currently underway, a shift she believes will have the same historic status as the Great Reformation and the Great Schism. We are in fact in the middle of what she is calling “The Great Emergence.” Every five hundred years, church and society undergo a major transformation and we happen to be lucky enough to be here to watch this one happen. 2 Post-Christendom, globalization, interconnectivity, and so on, are all dimensions and evidences of this Great Emergence.
The Emerging Church is a religious manifestation of the Great Emergence. Its name refers, as Doug Pagitt says, to changes that are happening within Christianity specifically. It includes both completely new gatherings and churches that have sprung up but also renewal occurring within existing denominations. “Emerging Church” then refers to the effect of this wider phenomenon known as the Great Emergence upon Christianity. This effect has been seen primarily in Western cultures but is also in evidence worldwide. 3
The Emergent Village, in turn, is one specific form of the Emerging Church. This organization grew in the late 1990s out of the Leadership Network group. For much of the early 2000s, Emergent Village was simply known as Emergent, but eventually took on the name “Emergent Village” to more clearly identify itself.
Its roots are in a gathering of young evangelical pastors charged with reaching Gen Xers. At a key meeting in the mid-1990s, Brad Cecil, a young pastor who had been reading Jacques Derrida identified the essential features of modernity and described how postmodernity was beginning to manifest itself. Some people “got it” and others didn’t. Those who “got” what Brad was saying began to meet and eventually left the world of evangelical mega-churches behind.
These had been people groomed to be next generation of power brokers in the evangelical/fundamentalist world. 4 Some have since developed a theology much more open to the participation of people traditionally excluded from positions of authority, while others have retained many theological and sociological hallmarks of fundamentalism, like barring women from pastoral ministry. 5 Since their first meeting, the original group of young pastors has splintered into many different groups, some of which take serious issue with each other. They are all, however, addressing the question of what postmodernity means for the church and how a church fulfills its calling in a postmodern world.
Emerging Christians do not easily fit into a pre-defined theological category. This is especially true of the Emergent Village, which in May 2006 published a statement against statements of faith. 6 (The irony was noted even by those who published it.) A defining characteristic of Emergent Village is that everything related to Jesus is open for discernment. Simply because a particular denomination has long held a particular doctrine does not mean that it cannot be questioned or scrutinized. Even so, both emergents and the broader Emerging Church emphasize that Emerging Church theological conversations are not free-for-alls: “Just because our church is open to various viewpoints doesn’t mean that anything goes. We really do believe things. We just also really believe that we might be wrong.” 7
North American Christianity’s encounter with postmodernity has produced what might seem a chaotic and incoherent response. Churches that identify with the Emerging Church embrace such a wide range of beliefs that one wonders how they can all fit under one umbrella. At one end of the spectrum are church leaders like Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle who preach a hyper-masculine Jesus and female subservience. At the other end are leaders like Tony Jones who openly welcome homosexuals into their churches. Some uphold the classic doctrines of specific denominations and others question all aspects of the faith. But within this wide range of beliefs and expressions, the core commonalities seem to be these: a commitment to engage and involve all members of the church, a belief that faith matters and has consequences for daily life, and a belief that Jesus is the central figure by whom all else is judged.
THE ANABAPTIST CONNECTION
Perhaps the seemingly chaotic and varied nature of the Emerging Church does not threaten me because I know this is not the first time a church of this kind has “emerged.” If Phyllis Tickle is right and we are in fact in the middle of a massive cultural and theological shift that happens every five hundred years, then we would do well to look back at the last massive shift. It may come as no surprise to students of the Reformation that Christianity sometimes gives birth to religious chaos and wildly divergent beliefs. But it may be a lot more surprising that the Emerging Church resembles sixteenth-century Anabaptism in striking ways.
The core similarities between the Emerging Church and early Anabaptism have been noted before. Gareth Brandt has recently pointed out the parallels between the three core values of Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision and those identified by Ryan K. Bolger and Eddie Gibbs in Emerging Churches. Bender’s three values of core Anabaptism are: (1) discipleship, or following the way of Jesus, is central to the Christian faith; (2) this way is lived out in voluntary commitment to the body of Christ—the church; and (3) pacifism is the primary mode of living the way of Jesus. Bolger and Gibbs identify the three core values of the Emerging churches as: (1) identifying with the way of Jesus; (2) living as a community; and (3) seeing all of life as sacred. Brandt observes, quite aptly, that the first two of each are nearly identical. The third points seem to differ, although one could argue that nonviolence and pacifism are rooted in the conviction that all of life is sacred. 8
But the most significant parallels between Anabaptism and the Emerging Church come into relief when their understandings of what the local congregation should look like are compared. There are three points at which the form of the Emerging Church seems to align with that of early Anabaptism: decentralized power, intentional involvement of the members of the church, and the significance accorded to the concept of the Kingdom of God for understanding the mission of the church.
In Organic Community Joseph Myers discusses the growing need to shift how power is held and used in the church. He rejects the vertical power model which holds that final authority rests with the person at the top of the pile who can dictate to people below what they must do. The problem with this model, says Myers, is that the focus of the community quickly becomes fixed on one person, one office, one seat of power. To remedy this problem Myers suggests that authority be located not at the top of a hierarchy but rather in a revolving form among the members of the group. To have power distributed in this way shifts attention away from a leader to the common task that all have a part in—away from the individual to the whole. 9 One could even say it shifts attention away from the individual or collective self to the kingdom of God.
In early Anabaptist communities this concept of distributed authority was an integral part of who they were. While the Protestant Reformation was in part inspired by anti-clericalism, Anabaptists took the sentiment to its logical conclusion. One pointed Anabaptist criticism of the Roman Catholic Church was that it concentrated too much power in the church hierarchy, leading to the abuse of power and unchecked corruption. 10 Indeed, the disparity between the leaders of the church and the laity was evident not only in differences of power but also in lifestyles.
This insight into the connection between a hierarchical system of authority and the abuse of power led Anabaptists to insist that church leaders be appointed not by a pope or some outside body, but rather by the local congregation itself. Since the congregation would consider primarily the spiritual and moral qualifications of leadership candidates—their spiritual character, their faithfulness in living out the gospel—the abuse of power by pastoral leaders was far less likely to occur. 11
PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS
Another hallmark of both Anabaptism and the Emerging Church is the conviction that everyone is to be involved in the church’s life. I am drawn to Kester Brewin’s understanding of what it means to be the church. Brewin explicitly frames his understanding of the Emergent Church networking structure in the language of emergent systems. He compares the Emerging Church structure with natural phenomena like ant colonies, which function through the high number of interactions between the individual members of the community rather than by taking direct orders from the queen. 12
In a bottom-up organization, the form that the larger organism/organization takes depends on the makeup of the individuals involved. There is no external force that imposes its will on the system in order to shape the individuals within it. It is worth noting, however, that even though emergent systems are open, adapting, and learning, they are, in fact, still systems. And all systems require that the individuals that make it up work together in order for the system to function. Emergent systems, for example, will have distributed knowledge as one of their main characteristics. 13 However, it is impossible to have “distributed knowledge” if no one is willing to receive or contribute knowledge. Emergent systems both draw from and require the active engagement of the members of the system in order to function.
Anabaptists were drawn together by common frustrations with the established church and its practices. Underlying many of their grievances was hostility toward the gulf between priests and lay people. Outrage at priestly corruption and exploitation of the poor caused much of their resentment, but the official separation between “lay” and “religious” itself constituted a significant ecclesiological problem for Anabaptists. As the Bible became more broadly accessible, many people began to raise questions about the minimal levels of religious commitment expected of laity, on the one hand, and the higher levels demanded of priests and religious orders, on the other. No Scriptures sanctioned a system of differing spiritual standards for different social classes. Likewise, no clear biblical reason could be found for granting greater authority to priests and monks than to anyone else in the church.
The issue of infant baptism focused this debate. The practice of baptizing infants had civil and political as well as religious implications, as did rejection of the practice. Since census numbers and taxation rates were calculated on the basis of the number of baptisms performed, civil authorities had reason to be concerned when objections to infant baptism were raised. On a theological level, the rejection of infant baptism said something important about what it means to be the church. For Anabaptists, a church was a community of believers who had voluntarily joined its company. Membership could not be imposed upon anyone incapable of voluntarily following Christ. The commitment to join the church had to be made intentionally and thoughtfully because church involvement demanded sacrifice: frequent meetings, giving and receiving church discipline, interpreting biblical texts, receiving confession, giving communion—and, on occasion, martyrdom. Anabaptists were convinced that a true “priesthood of all believers” implied a level of church involvement at least equal to, and hopefully greater than, that of their former priests.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The third area of resonance between the Emerging Church and Anabaptism is the radical commitment of both to the Kingdom of God. Within the structure of the Emerging Church an interesting center has begun to emerge. Bolger and Gibbs put it this way:
First and foremost is the kingdom, and the church follows. Consequently, to ask church questions without the reference to the kingdom is fruitless. Emerging churches represent this viewpoint of kingdom before church. They are built on the premise that the mission God has entrusted to his church is concerned with actualizing the kingdom by being available to God and responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The focus of emerging churches on the “gospel of the kingdom” as distinct from a “gospel of salvation” has produced a new ecclesiology. More accurately, it has signaled a return to an ancient ecclesiology in which mission is integral to church. 14
Being the church is therefore, on some level, about being the Kingdom of God here on earth. Church is not, however, limited to sitting in a church building once a week, singing songs, and listening to a preacher. The Kingdom of God encompasses all of life. The church is “primarily a people, not simply a place to meet.” 15 If it loses this understanding of its place—namely, that the church is in service to the Kingdom of God—then it has acquired a form of church that is merely self-serving, a form that must be abandoned.
The phrase “Kingdom of God” also comes up often in Anabaptist writings. There, it usually refers to the gathered body of believers. In this sense Anabaptists, too, saw the church as the Kingdom of God. Of course, by “church” the Anabaptists meant the voluntary gathering of adult believers living in obedience to Christ, not the state church, membership in which was compulsory for all citizens. Leonhard Schiemer said it well:
Church or ecclesia is a gathered congregation of people which is built on Christ and not on the pope, emperor, etc. Nor are the stone houses and towers church. Paul says you are no longer pilgrims and strangers but fellow citizens and member of the household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. For the prophets all had the spirit of Christ. That is why Christ is the cornerstone, whom the builders of the house of God cast out as a prophet. 16
The form of Anabaptist congregations was directly shaped by their desire to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth, having recognized that the established church had fallen short of living up to its true calling.
The similarities between Anabaptism and the Emerging Church are, thus, striking. But no, the Emerging Church is not an exact representation of Anabaptism in modern times. The fact that the Emerging Church has developed in a cultural context of relative freedom while Anabaptism was greeted with vicious persecution sets the two groups apart, as do theological differences. 17 That being said, there is much that the Emerging Church could learn from the early Anabaptists, and there is a lot that descendants of sixteenth-century Anabaptism could, in turn, learn from the Emerging Church.
LESSONS FOR THE EMERGING CHURCH
First, the Emerging Church needs to know what it believes. In the beginning, what unified Anabaptists was that they were not Catholic, just as many in the Emerging Church are united in rejecting fundamentalism. Defining one’s identity over against another creates an unhealthy dependency on one’s adversary, which impedes the maturing process of developing a positive identity. Knowing what one believes in rather than reacting against another is crucial.
Next is the problem of the second generation. Mennonites have held Martyrs’ Mirror in high regard since it was published in 1660. A collection of about a thousand stories of Christians, many of them Anabaptists, who were killed for their faith, Dutch Mennonites produced the book because their children, many involved in the lucrative shipping trade, had begun to forget the history of their faith. Martyrs’ Mirror represented one effort by Mennonites to pass on the “faith of the fathers” to their children.
Even more important in this regard was the practice of adult baptism. Anabaptists insisted that every individual choose to become a follower of Jesus and consider that decision carefully and prayerfully before being baptized. Only a person of sufficient maturity (i.e., an adult) was deemed capable of making such a crucial decision cognizant of its implications. Adult baptism, thus, partly answers the second-generation problem. Every generation becomes, in a sense, the first generation because it repeats the earlier generation’s defining spiritual experience. The Emerging Church will likewise need to develop practices that will serve to help their children develop a faith of their own. The longevity of the Emerging Church depends on it.
Lastly, the Emergent movement must guard against the loss of its prophetic voice. Early Anabaptists were so outspoken that the authorities used tongue screws to keep them from preaching while being publicly executed. But with time, Anabaptists became known as the “quiet in the land” because they agreed to keep silent in exchange for official toleration. There are some within the Emerging Church who are speaking prophetically to the established church. My fear is that the lure of luxury, wealth, and power might prove far more effective than torture in silencing that prophetic voice. Maintaining that voice requires attention, dedication, and a readiness, even in today’s world, to incur the wrath of authorities.
LESSONS FOR MODERN ANABAPTISTS
While the history of Anabaptists has many lessons to offer the Emerging Church, contemporary descendants of Anabaptists also have much to learn from the Emerging Church. First, it may teach us that we are not very Anabaptist. Many denominations have descended from those sixteenth-century Anabaptists, but most have grown into variations that resemble those early reformers very little. The key difference is that while many of us are concerned with matters like discipleship, the attention of Anabaptists was focused on the movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s time for us to do some real soul searching and ask ourselves if we actually understand our theological past and are living up to true Anabaptist ideals. If we are honest, we may have to admit that some in the Emerging Church look more like the Anabaptists than we do.
Next, the Emerging Church can teach us that we need to engage the world around us. The original Anabaptists preached to all people. Both they and the Emerging Church have seen that the Good News of the gospel is just that for people struggling on many levels. The gospel is not particularly good news for the people who hold power, especially for those who have held it for a long time. And if the good news we preach is good news only for life-long church-attenders, then we must question whether we are even preaching the Good News of the Bible. Anabaptism was never about living in a bubble that kept outsiders away; it was rather about infiltrating and infecting the world with Good News that would change it forever.
Finally, the Emerging Church shows us that Anabaptism is still attractive. Like many other denominations, historic Anabaptist denominations are in decline. In our consumerist and business-oriented society, questions about the relevance of our Anabaptist-inspired preaching and ministry have been raised, and many from our midst have gravitated towards flashy mega-churches. But we can take heart that many Emerging Christians are preaching an Anabaptist message, and with great success. Indeed, a number of high-profile figures credit Anabaptist thought for shaping their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus: Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, influential leaders in the New Monastic movement; Rob Bell, a founding pastor at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and prominent leader in the Emerging Church; Shane Hipps, former pastor at Trinity Mennonite in Phoenix, now with Rob Bell at Mars Hill. These and many others connected to the Emerging Church are preaching an Anabaptist-shaped gospel.
As a staunch Anabaptist for my entire life, I confess to feeling jealous when I hear “my” theology come out of someone else’s mouth and know that tens of thousands think it’s an exciting new idea. But it’s important to understand that the attractiveness of the Anabaptist message is due to its emphasis on Jesus. The gospel of Jesus, as Anabaptists have long known and believed, is incredibly good news. If others are finding ways to communicate that message to people that have never heard it before, then let us all rejoice that the Kingdom of God has been increased!
It’s true that Anabaptism and the Emerging Church are still two very different spiritual movements, confronting very different cultures, facing very different challenges. However, they seem to be two cars driving in the same direction on the highway of faith. They have enough affinity for each other that interaction between the two is important and will, hopefully, bear much fruit in the future.
- Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 74–81.
- Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 19–31.
- Doug Pagitt, Emergent and Emerging Church Distinction, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MUN1BYC0ko&feature=youtube_gdata.
- As such, many of them are white men. Emergent Village has made concerted efforts to change this in the last couple of years, but it’s still a work in progress.
- Mark Driscoll on the Emerging Church, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58fgkfS6E-0&feature=youtube_gdata.
- Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 233–5.
- Ibid., 71.
- Gareth Brandt, “Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches—Strange bedfellows: Anabaptism and the emergent church,” November 17, 2009, http://www.mbconf.ca/home/products%5Fand%5Fservices/resources/publications/mb%5Fherald/vol%5F47%5Fno%5F10/features/strange%5Fbedfellows%5Fanabaptism%5Fand%5Fthe%5Femergent%5Fchurch/.
- Joseph R. Myers, Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 97–113.
- C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, abridged student ed. (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 1995), 86.
- The Schleitheim Confession of the Swiss Anabaptists describes the ideal pastor in this way: “The shepherd in the church shall be a person according to the rule of Paul, fully and completely, who has a good report of those who are outside the faith. The office of such a person shall be to read and exhort and teach, warn, admonish, or ban in the congregation, and properly to preside among the sisters and brothers in prayer, and in the breaking of bread, and in all things to take care of the body of Christ, that it may be built up and developed, so that the name of God might be praised and honored through us, and the mouth of the mocker be stopped.” Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527–1660, Classics of the Radical Reformation 11 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2006), 29.
- Brewin, 77.
- Ibid., 109–13.
- Eddie Gibbs, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 91.
- Ibid., 90.
- Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart, Ind.), Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the radical Reformation 3 (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1981), 104.
- One key difference between the early Anabaptists and the Emergent Church (or even modern day Mennonites) is on the issue of biblical authority. Anabaptists were committed to as literal a reading of the biblical text as possible. Moreover, explicit biblical support for any church practice was required. The idea that the Bible is a guiding text that allows a wide range of plausible interpretations predominates in the Emerging Church in a way that would have been unacceptable to most Protestants in the sixteenth century, and certainly to Anabaptists.