Bridging the 20th and 21st Centuries
The emergent church movement is simply this: those who are dealing thoughtfully between the shift from the twentieth century to the twenty first century way of thinking and doing. They are people who are building a biblically rooted, historically informed, and culturally aware new witness to the twenty first century, says Robert E. Webber.
“The younger evangelical (emergent) wants to release the historic substance of faith from its twentieth-century enculturation in the Enlightenment (trust in modern science to gain all truth) and recontextualize it with the new cultural condition of the twenty first century,” says Webber. In his book The Younger Evangelicals, Webber does a virtuoso work of brushing broad and detailed strokes across the canvas of culture and the church to describe the emergent movement, and I would highly recommend that you pick up that book. Here, however, I will tell you what the emergent movement means to me and perhaps in this telling you will find a voice for what you feel and think yourself or observe in others.
The emergent movement means that I still believe in the authority of the Bible, that my appeal is to ancient faith of our forefathers, appropriated in new ways for today without straining them through the Enlightenment modernistic model that by necessity leaves little or no room for the Spirit, mystery, paradox, and positive ritual. Yet while I rest in the authoritative word of God as divine truth, I can begin to fathom how and why a Muslim is raised not to believe it so, and I can understand why a Methodist or Pentecostal or Catholic may view the Spirit or ritual or church government differently than I do without impugning their motives or believing them merely ignorant or them alone and not I fallible where we don’t agree.
The emergent movement means that I am on a journey with my Muslim friend, Nayil. I stop by his coffee shop at least once a week and we talk of atrocities in his country, Iraq. He tells me of his brother who was killed by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in 1995. He tells me he prays to Allah, and he makes a point to tell me that many Muslims pray to Ali or Muhammad but he believes he can pray straight to God. I tell him that I believe Jesus is the true Son of God, not just a son but Holy God himself in the flesh, that he is truly the one who gives us direct access to God. Nayil answers the phone and it’s another of his brothers calling from Jordan, wanting to talk about problems in Iraq with the Americans. He tells his brother he doesn’t want to hear it today. He gets back to our conversation. Seems on this day he has ears to hear what we are saying to one another, what I’m saying about Jesus. Someday, over my coffee and thirteen cents change I’ll tell him I’ve been praying for him behind his back that he will honor Jesus as the one God has sent to give him access to Him.
Give me Jesus
One of Paul’s favorite phrases is “in Christ.” He says it literally more than 150 times in his letters. Whatever direction the church or culture moves in, let us emerge “in Christ.” In Christ we are new creations—the old is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). The emergent movement means that I must speak of being “in Christ” as necessary not only for salvation but for transformation, and I will speak this unequivocally to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, or agnostic. I believe that Jesus is the Way, The Truth, and The Life (John 14:6) and that He is who I cling to in place of my rational powers or purity of doctrine. As Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz says, “Give me Jesus. Just…give me Jesus.” He is the first and the last, the Great I AM, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the Son of God and truly God, not just a prophet but one who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. Just give me Jesus, him crucified and raised and let me walk that path with him. In the words of Paul and the words of the song I sang hundreds of times at Osage Christian camp in a corner of Oklahoma as a boy and what I preached over and again in the far corners of Uganda and what I am willing to say to a Barista in a coffee shop or shoe fitter in Nashville, “I want to know Christ and the power of his rising, share in his suffering, conform to his death. I want to pour out my life to be filled with his Spirit…Great Joy follows suffering and life follows death”(song paraphrases Phil. 3:10-11). Just give me Jesus.
The emergent culture has helped me to understand more fully that I do in fact believe in tradition, ritual, performative symbol. I believe in the power and essential nature of the rituals that symbolize and enact in us our story that culminates in Christ and is handed down to us through the worship of the church: serving, laying of hands and praying for one another both publicly and stealthily, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and calling all who fellowship back to the table for communion with our Lord Jesus and one another.
The emergent movement has encouraged me to nurture intergenerational participation in worship (not just those living but participating in the meditative piety of those long gone, including but not limited to biblical writers, church fathers, and Reformers). I believe it’s time the old men and women dream their dreams and cast their visions and the young men and women follow and serve and do the leg work for the gray-haired elders who have been around the block and to war and to the prisons and to the places we’ve never been nor can imagine. I believe it’s time my young generation becomes the servants and lets the elders raise their hands while we hold them up by the Gen X, Y, and Z energy that we have. The elder are the ones who’ve been doing much of the falling on their knees in their closets, and we’ve just begun to understand what that means, public or private. Let us fall with them and learn from them and learn to lead by first learning how they’ve fixed the church roof and repaired the plumbing and prayed and anointed the fallen through the past decades while we’ve been growing up.
The emergent movement means I question, therefore I am. I no longer have all the answers as I once did. Sometimes these questions are enough; the mysterious left mysterious is sometimes more than I can stand. My questions are a response to the modern notion that I can have all the answers for any question. For instance, I recently visited a family friend, a kind and evangelistic man. He found it inconceivable that I could question anything of the one hundred year-old dogma that he had come to believe was pure biblical truth. My appeal to look afresh at Scripture seemed odd, any mention of church fathers or the Apostle’s Creed was unconscionable, any fellowship with those outside the boundaries of our particular church except for reasons of evangelism, deplorable. Still, I told him I can take his torch and run with it but I will speak in ways he may not understand so that my culture can fathom God in new and ancient ways.
The emergent movement means that I am less confident in pre-fab evangelistic methods and wonder if the “targets” of our evangelism do not see much of what we do as contrived or inauthentic. Yes, for those who find it difficult to form words and ideas to speak, some tools are useful to aid the ongoing conversation about life, truth, and the Lord that we are called to have with our neighbors and nations. I like how Fred Peatross puts it in his bio in this issue: we are fellow explorers and sometime guides. We stand between the once more relevant cottage Bible study and potential postmodern indifference toward evangelism, but I am more excited than ever about the conversations and honest questioning and open proclamation that many Christians are having with one another and those on the journey of discovery of Christ.
The emergent movement also has helped me understand and embrace tensions, simultaneous and previously inconceivably both/and truths, and paradoxes. The modern view that truth is totally objective, that everything must be black and white, is a gray area for me. Yes, there is objective truth, God’s word is true and authoritative in my life, much more than anything I can say or do, and there is finality and bottomless power and Spiritual depth in Christ, in our Holy God. Yet, in the same Scripture that tells us the story of a God who is merciful, we find that God is awful and terrible in his punishments for the wicked, unrepentant, disobedient. He is to be cherished and loved but he is also to be revered and honored and respected above and light years beyond anything we can fathom. The God who controls the universe is the God who knows my name, the one who forgives by means of ritual sacrifice or imparts grace through baptism also forgives by a single word. Christ’s teachings are hard, demanding, yet his yoke is easy and his burden light. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ, yet that faith is part of a free will that God has from the dawn of creation used to form relationships with humanity.
The emergent movement means that the power and will of the Spirit of God is alive and free in my life to move, prompt, and shape me without the constraints of science and modernism breathing down my neck. Yet I paradoxically am moored to the traditions, the meditations, forever rock-solid truths of the eternal word of God.
My prayer for us is that through calling upon the Lord the veil will drop from our eyes, that the Spirit will move in us and through us toward Him, toward our neighbors, toward an ever-enriching emergence of God’s glory through community, Spirit, evangelism, exploration together of His heart-ripping story. Just give us Jesus.