Why I Can’t Write an Article on the Emergent Church
The “Emergent conversation” or “Emergent Church” has been a topic that has generated a lot of press lately. There are reports of Emergent Christians experiencing altered states of consciousness, embracing Buddhism or other world religions, and downplaying the doctrine of hell. 1 Conversely, writers within the Emergent conversation are producing theological works that stress moving beyond merely holding a set of beliefs and toward a lifestyle of discipleship. With such mixed messages, it is not surprising that many are confused about what to make of this new movement.
I worry that because I do not denounce the movement I’ll be accused of promoting an Emergent agenda
In the following article, I would like to share my personal journey and reflections on the Emergent conversation. 2 I do so in the spirit of dialog, but not without a lot of trepidation. As the lead pastor of a Central Valley, California, Mennonite Brethren church, I am apprehensive to write an article on the Emergent conversation for fear of being misunderstood. Yet, my hope is that by sharing the story of my understanding of the Mennonite Brethren, as one person who is grafted into the Mennonite Brethren tree, readers will gain insight into the Emergent movement through the lenses of my experience. Yes, there are areas of concern, but I hope to provide in these pages a fair and balanced account of who these “emergents” are.
I didn’t grow up Mennonite Brethren, as you will have gathered from my last name. I’m a Bartlett, not a Bartel. I first came across the Mennonite Brethren when I attended what was, in the early 1980s, called Fresno Pacific College (FPC). I came to the college with a mixed theological heritage. My dad was not a believer, so my mom took us four kids to the church in our community with the best children’s and youth programs. In my early years, this was the First Presbyterian church in Woodlake. I accepted Christ, was baptized, and had substantive formative experiences there. As I began junior high, my family moved to Oakhurst, a small mountain community, and began to attend an Assemblies of God church. Here I “met” the Holy Spirit, learned about ministry, and was called to consider a church-based vocation. I’m in ministry today as a result of the shoulder-tapping and encouragement of Pastors Bob Clayton and Carman Ruggeri from Mountain Christian Center.
I brought this mixed theological heritage of Presbyterian and Pentecostalism to Fresno Pacific. When I came across the “Fresno Pacific Idea” and the wider world of Anabaptism, I was immediately drawn to this faith that was strongly founded on the Bible and encouraged practical expressions of Christian love in the community. I was also impressed by the depth of scriptural teaching I received. As a Pentecostal, I wrestled with new theological concepts around the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I also studied under professors who, while obviously filled with the Spirit, didn’t (to my knowledge) speak in tongues. I eventually came to a significant theological synthesis of the experience-based faith of my youth and the grounding in Scriptures and the social activism I found at FPC.
I recall feeling amazed that I had come across a denomination that took seriously the priesthood of all believers and was willing to corporately engage texts and issues in order to discern what God might be saying to the church. It was this final piece that was the strongest draw for me. I appreciated the fact that each individual could bring something to the table. I appreciated that we could discern in community. I also appreciated that I didn’t catch a lot of dogmatism from the faculty. Their response to my questions was, “Come and see. Let’s journey together.” This denominational stance is one of the foundational reasons I am a pastor in this denomination and why I am willing to write this article. I value seeing followers of Jesus as brothers and sisters who come together and discuss issues of importance. I have observed that Emergent literature places a similar value on corporate discernment.
BAILING IN THE U.K.
After working seven years in Mennonite Brethren churches and graduating from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS), my wife and I spent ten years as missionaries with Youth for Christ (YFC)—seven in the U.K. and three in Tacoma, Washington. In Britain we came across people who thought about God much differently than we did. I’ll never forget my third day in the country when I was told our staff meeting would be held at the local pub. Let’s just say I was the only person there drinking Diet Pepsi. These were fellow YFC workers, British people who had dedicated their lives to sharing the gospel of Jesus with young people in their country, and here they were having an ale with their fish and chips.
Sitting in the pub that day triggered a re-evaluation of my theology. I realized then that I was operating with what Stone and Duke call “embedded theology.” In many ways it was an assimilated faith, rather than one that I had wrestled with. Stone and Duke call the other form of theology “deliberative” and identify this as “the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions.” 3
That experience in the pub, along with many others during our time in the U.K., had a profound impact on the way I thought about God, the church, living as a Christian, and evangelism. For one thing, I realized that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural country where over three hundred teenagers were leaving the church every week (these were the children of Christians), employing creative means to reach kids is crucial. Innovation for the sake of the gospel was welcomed and encouraged. If the boat is sinking, it really does not matter what you bail with as long as everyone is bailing.
The Christian leaders I met across the U.K. recognized this immense need and were willing to partner or “bail” together and work at creative mission in a manner unlike any I had seen in my years in the U.S. We were involved in evangelistic ministries that worked with students in their culture: in nightclubs, out on the streets, in schools through theatre companies and bands, as well as through the Internet (back in the early days of this medium). It felt to me that British Christian leaders understood that desperate times called for desperate measures, so they were willing to try almost anything to reach people for Christ. I believe that in many ways, the seeds of the Emergent conversation were sown in similar situations in the U.K., in the U.S., and across the world. For example, the contemporary model of the “prayer path” or Labyrinth, which is available from Group Publishing, was designed by a British YFC worker as an evangelistic outreach in a local cathedral. 4
BACK IN THE U.S.A.
Our life journey eventually led us back to MBBS, where for five years I directed the Ministry Quest program. I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until returning to the Seminary as a faculty member that it struck me how much theology matters in the practical out-workings of life as well as in ministry. The years spent in youth ministry had forged in me a desire to be pragmatic, and I had forgotten how the lenses of my theology had changed. While at MBBS this second time, I became passionate about Anabaptism and the way the Mennonite Brethren church had stood for the “Third Way,” rather than being caught up in the either/or polemic of evangelism versus social action. I found my faith rejuvenated at Seminary as I realized the power of biblical theology. While much of Christendom is looking for a way to live with the tensions of a changing culture, biblical theology provides a way to navigate these by taking the Bible, not philosophical systems, as its foundation and starting place.
Emergent literature expresses a similar commitment to live with the tension of faith in a changing culture. Tony Jones, formerly national spokesperson for the Emergent conversation, puts it this way: “At its essence, Emergent Christianity is an effort by a particular people in a particular time and place to respond to the gospel as it breaks through the age-old crusts. And it’s the shifting tectonics of postmodernism that have caused the initial fissure.” 5 I know that many believers wish that culture would not have any impact on the church, but the fact remains that our churches are products of a particular cultural time and place. Because most of us live with an embedded theology, we tend to believe that our expression of church is closest to what the Bible teaches. Unfortunately, we often do not consider that the same convictions were held by European churches during the Crusades, by the churches of America’s Deep South during the 1960s, and by South African churches during the 1980s. As Jones says: “. . . the Christian gospel is always enculturated, always articulated by a certain people in a certain time and place. To try and freeze one particular articulation of the gospel, to make it timeless and universally applicable, actually does an injustice to the gospel.” 6 If God is at work around the world, then the way he builds Christian community will not reflect a cookie-cutter approach.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
This truth became increasingly clear to me while pursuing a doctorate at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in the area of Leadership in the Emerging Culture. The program called for reading in a wide variety of areas: doctrine, church history, science, postmodernism, human behavior, and leadership, to name a few. In the midst of our course work, the cohort interacted with each other in an “online” format. We would read and respond to each other on the course website, listing our comments and questions on the reading each day. One day, a couple of students were struggling with how to integrate what we were reading with their church theology. I responded that Mennonite Brethren taught and practiced biblical theology and gave a brief explanation. One of the class members immediately responded, “You Anabaptists get it. The theology you hold is exactly what our emerging culture needs.” He went on to tell me that many in his Reformed denomination were struggling with the rigidity of a systematic theology that was stretched thin to deal with the complex issues of the day. For him and his colleagues, understanding the Scriptures through a biblical theological lens was life-giving. I should point out that this was an older gentleman, not someone who would typically be labeled “Emergent.”
WHY I CAN’T . . .
This brings the narrative to today. I’m now lead pastor at Bethany Church in Fresno. I’ve had a “career” that has included youth pastor, camp director, missionary, YFC worker, and educator. I’ve grown and changed through my experiences and have become more of a “world Christian” as a result. My faith has broadened through conversations with the wide variety of believers I have encountered. It strikes me as providential that God has charted my journey in such a way that I’ve been forced to engage in diversity at a time when our culture is becoming increasingly homogeneous. I often wonder what I have to say in this cultural context.
Why can’t I write this article on the Emergent Church? I have spent many hours researching and thinking about the culture we are moving into. It is an increasingly pluralistic culture, where Christians will become just one more voice among many in the public sphere. I have also spent hours researching the Emergent conversation: a network of friends who are trying to live as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ in this changing culture. My experience with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Youth and Young Adult network is that Canada is closer to the U.K. and the rest of Europe in experiencing cultural shift. And I come from a church denomination that has valued community discernment and conversation.
I cannot write this article because every time I sit down to write I worry. First, I worry about the impact an article like this will have on the local church I serve. I deeply love the people I minister alongside, but many of them have strong opinions about the Emergent conversation and could be upset because I won’t outright condemn it. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I am torn. On the one hand, I would not endorse every concept or author tied to the Emergent movement. On the other hand, I have found many of them to have life-giving things to say, things that have helped and informed my faith. So which hand do I extend? I would hope that both can be held out together.
Still, I worry that because I do not denounce the movement I’ll be accused of promoting an Emergent agenda. I also worry that this article won’t be given a fair reading. Even though Mennonite Brethren talk about community hermeneutics and the value of conversation, I have not found that to be true recently. North Americans are encouraged to filter everything we do, read, or watch through personal lenses, not communal. As I’ve listened, some folks have such a negative perception of anything that is linked to “the ‘E’ word” that they will prejudge without listening to any arguments. We may think we’re completely objective, but that’s another lens, a false assumption.
IF I COULD . . .
So what would I say if I could write this article?
I’d begin by asking the question, “What should the church look like?” By way of an answer, a British friend, Pete Ward, then the Archbishop of Canterbury’s youth advisor, gave me a description of church that I have found helpful. The church exists as three distinct entities at the same time. These entities are: the institution (the denomination), the congregation (local expression), and the mission band (evangelists and missionaries). The danger, according to Ward, is that participants in each of the entities sometimes refuse to recognize the others as valid expressions of the church. 7
Think about this for a moment. A participant in the congregation is normally able to see the validity of the institution as well as the mission band. There is legitimacy in an organization that helps keep churches on track, assists in ordination, and maintains orthodoxy. A congregant could also see how an agency that reaches out to youth or the homeless would be valuable. But the institution and mission bands have difficulty extending the same courtesy to each other. Often a mission band finds the institution stifling, frustrating, and out of touch. Likewise, the institution finds missionaries to be extreme, too far on the edge, unorthodox. Consider Hudson Taylor, William and Catherine Booth, and John Wesley: all were criticized for their unorthodox ways of reaching people in their target culture. Could it be that those in the Emergent conversation have drawn criticism for the same reasons?
I would then reflect on the irony that the scions of the Radical Reformation are criticizing those who are essentially rediscovering Anabaptism. The passions of the Emergent conversation—identifying with the life of Jesus, community, theology, social action, and mission—sound to me like the very things Anabaptists rediscovered. 8 Of course, responding to a renewal movement with intolerance is nothing new. “One critical ‘malady’ was ‘intolerance.’ In the conflictual environment of the beginning years it was easy to adopt positions quickly without thorough reflection.” 9 Although this sounds like a quote from Christianity Today, it refers to the intolerance that met the Mennonite Brethren church 150 years ago.
Understanding that biblical interpretation is a communal task rather than dependent on one voice is another important aspect of Emergent thinking. Jones frames it as a way to protect the text: “Emergent Christians hope to avoid the danger of solo theology by intentionally placing themselves in theological communities, and the more diverse the better.” 10 One of the things that drew me to the Mennonite Brethren was their strong emphasis on a “community hermeneutic.” I read about study conferences and how the Confession of Faith was not written by an individual but by community leaders and then affirmed by the entire community. This method seemed to me to represent an Acts 15 model: an approach that emphasized “it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). Emergents are seeking to practice community interpretation as they become wary of high profile individuals who say their interpretation of a particular text is “what the Bible teaches.” Thoughtful persons respond, “as interpreted by whom?” The Emergent conversation seeks to bring community discernment to the text, listening to the voices of scholars, church history, and to those within their congregations rather than to just one individual.
YOUTH MINISTRY GROWN UP
Finally, as a former youth worker, I recently had an epiphany. Could it be that the Emergent conversation is simply youth ministry grown up? In Growing Up Evangelical, Pete Ward argues that the practices of youth ministry become normal whole-church ministry in ten years. 11 I suggest this is part of what is happening around the world with the Emerging movement. For example, during the 1980s and ’90s, the key words on lips of those teaching and training youth ministers was “be relevant.” Youth ministry was centered around having a varied program that connected with youth. In the words of Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, “it’s a sin to bore a kid.”
Today, churches of the Emergent conversation are focused on seeking to be relevant to the wider culture while, like the youth ministers before them, staying faithful to the gospel. Emergents want to move past the reductionistic version of God’s story they have been taught and toward the wider narrative of God’s love for the world. To those who would say, “I don’t have a theology, I just love Jesus,” Jones writes, “. . . ‘only loving Jesus’ is a theology. It’s a paper thin theology, a reductionistic theology. It’s a theology that avoids many things . . .” 12 Through theological reflection and creative practice, emergents seek to find relevant methods to meet people where they are on the road and to journey with them. Like those YFC workers in the U.K., emergents seek to be relevant to the whole gospel as well as to the culture in order to share the good news.
Alongside issues of “relevance,” youth workers in the ’80s and ’90s also taught and modeled that church should be “different.” Growing as a Christian required more than attending church, Sunday night fellowship, and Sunday school. Experiences like mission trips, creative responses to sermons, and the creation of community, were expanded during this era. Experiential learning has now become the preferred pedagogy at many churches and is also practiced in many Emergent services. Combine the desire to be “different” with a yearning for various experiences and one would have the essentials of Emergent worship.
What are we to do with the Emergent movement? I believe that like the early Anabaptists and the first Mennonite Brethren, the Emergent conversation provides many positive correctives for the contemporary Western church. But the church should consider both the critiques and endorsements of this conversation. I am myself wary of accommodating too eagerly to culture and can see a significant role for the Mennonite Brethren church in providing a broad but balanced perspective on how to engage with North American society. What I dislike is the fracturing, name-calling, and scorn heaped upon a group of people seeking to walk in the ways of Jesus in our day and time. It seems to me we should rather offer them our prayers as we all seek to bail together.
- Jan Markell, “Will the Emergent Church Submerge Yours?” Israel My Glory (Wesville, New Jersey), March/April 2009, 30–31. This is one of many popular articles that could be cited.
- Although I am not part of any Emergent group I am choosing to use Emergent vocabulary and will employ the term “conversation” rather than “church.”
- Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 16.
- For more information see http://www.freshworship.org/node/255.
- Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 37.
- Ibid., 96.
- Personal Conversation – Spring 1997.
- See Eddie Gibbs, “Preparing Leaders for an Emerging Church,” Colloquy (Fall 2007): 14. See also Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005) and Gareth Brandt, “Strange Bedfellows: Anabaptism and the Emergent Church,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, October 2008, 11–12.
- Paul Toews, “Peter Klassen: Mediating the Past to Shape the Future,” California Mennonite Historical Society Bulletin (Fall 2009): 2.
- Jones, 113.
- Pete Ward, Growing Up Evangelical: Youthwork and the Making of a Subculture (London: SPCK, 1996).
- Jones, 114.