This post should not be viewed as an endorsement of the Emerging Church (EC) or of what is said in the article. It is my sincere desire to help all of us better understand this conversation. – Kurt Miller
A force for good
For a growing movement of believers, an activist faith means more than proselytizing about Jesus and stoking the fires of our culture wars. Welcome to the new (and yes, liberal) world of evangelical Christianity.
By Tom Krattenmaker
A passerby might not have known: Was this going to be a church service or a concert by an alternative rock band? The set-up on the stage suggested the latter — a drum kit, guitars on stands, several microphones, and large screens flashing iconic Portland scenes — and so did the look of the young, urban-hip crowd filling up the auditorium.
Then the band hit the stage with a loud, infectious groove, the front man singing passionately about God, and it was clear that the Sunday gathering of Portland’s Imago Dei Community was both alt-rock concert and church service, or neither, exactly. So it goes in the new world of alternative evangelical Christianity, better known as the emerging church.
(Illustration by Sam Ward, USA TODAY)
There’s a growing buzz about the emerging movement, and depending on your point of view, its robust growth and rising influence are worthy of applause, scorn, or perhaps just puzzlement. Fitting for a movement that eschews hierarchy and dogma, emergents defy simple definition. Perhaps the best one can say is that they’re new-style Christians for the postmodern age, the evangelicals of whom the late Rev. Jerry Falwell disapproved.
Postmodernity is nothing new. Philosophers will tell you we’ve been living in the postmodern age for decades. But its expression in the context of fervent Christianity, in the form of the emerging church, is a fairly recent phenomenon, only about a decade old.
Like the postmodern philosophy it embraces, the emerging church values complexity, ambiguity and decentralized authority. Emergents are quite certain about some things, nevertheless, especially Jesus and his clear instruction about the way Christians are to live out their faith — not primarily as respectable, middle-class pillars of status quo society, but as servants to the poor and to people in the margins. In the words of Gideon Tsang, a 33-year-old Texas emergent who moved himself and his family to a smaller home in a poorer part of town, “The path of Christ is not in upward mobility; it’s in downward.”
Nothing to resent
To the many Americans cynical about religion, news of the emerging church might come as a stereotype-busting surprise. Christians fired up not about wedge-driving culture-war issues, but about spreading non-judgmental love and compassion? What’s to resent about this public face of religion?
According to best estimates, several hundred emerging church congregations, or “communities,” have sprung up around the country. Although some are quite large, with memberships well into the thousands, emergents are still bit players on the national religious stage. But the emerging church is making its presence felt, with new groups forming rapidly and major secular and religious media outlets chronicling its influence and potential to dramatically change religion in this country.
Rick McKinley is a goateed thirty-something who leads Imago Dei (which means “image of God” in Latin). McKinley is not your mother’s minister. He threads his sermons and two books with youthful slang, as in being “stoked” about things that excite him and acknowledging that “it can really suck” to live with sin.
Ask McKinley whether he and his community are evangelical Christians, and he’ll tell you yes — and no. “We’d say ‘yes’ in terms of what we think about the authority of Scripture and those things,” says McKinley, who is finishing his theology doctorate this year. “What you have is evangelicalism defined doctrinally, which we’d agree with, and defined culturally, where we would disagree. Culturally, it has been hijacked by a right-wing political movement.
“Like mainstream evangelicals, emergents believe in spreading the Gospel and in the necessity of believers having a personal relationship with Jesus. The difference lies in how faith is applied — the way it’s acted out “in the culture,” as emergents typically put it. In the eyes of the emerging church, Christianity lived out in the respectable confines of megachurches and suburbia is fading into irrelevance as a new generation comes of age with a passion for healing society and a reluctance to shout moralistic dogma. “If the church doesn’t love its neighbors,” McKinley says, “I don’t understand how it can say anything that’s going to have meaning in the culture.”
Emergents tend to be more tolerant than establishment evangelicals on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Do emergents believe in heaven and hell? Yes, McKinley explains, but according to emergent theology, the point of being Christian is not solely to achieve heaven in the next life, but to bring some heaven to this life by doing the work of Jesus.
That conviction recently translated into “Love Portland,” a Saturday of service around the city. Groups from Imago Dei fanned out to perform service projects — beautifying a school in a poor neighborhood, refurbishing a rundown community theater, and the like — and then gathered to celebrate at their Sunday service the next day with music, video clips and stories from those who partook of the service work. Of course, most evangelical churches perform community service. What makes groups such as Imago Dei different is “sustainability,” McKinley says — a commitment to serving the community day after day, week after week — and a soft-sell approach to evangelizing to those on the receiving end of their good works.
Serve the community
The “downward mobility” cited by the Texas emergent applies as well to the church-growth strategy, or lack thereof, of emerging communities. Unlike the megachurches of mainstream evangelicalism, emerging groups do not emphasize attracting new members (although it seems to happen anyway) or constructing church buildings. Some emerging groups meet in rented auditoriums, some in people’s homes, some in pubs. There is less emphasis, too, on programming for members. In their view, the church exists not primarily to serve members but to serve the community.
Typical of the movement’s critics, Falwell accused the emerging church of trying to “modernize and recreate the church so as not to offend sinners.” That’s probably code for “liberal,” a shoe that would certainly fit.
Writer Scot McKnight, a supporter of the movement, says emergents are seen as “a latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing group of 21st-century, left-wing, hippie wannabes. Put directly, they are Democrats.”
As is so often the case with religious movements in this country, the emerging church is both old and new: Old, in that Christianity in America has seemingly always been in a state of re-invention in response to the ever-changing culture; and new, in that we see in the emerging church a group of Jesus followers who reject the social conservatism modeled by Falwell and many other leading evangelicals this past quarter-century.
Is the emerging church compromising biblical truth for the sake of being hip? That debate won’t be resolved here. Whatever the case, there is something hopeful about the appearance of a youthful, idealistic form of faith focused more on healing broken neighborhoods than accumulating members and political power.
For those hoping religion can more consistently serve as a force for kindness, unity and society’s renewal — and not so much as an argument-starter — the verdict seems simple: Let the emerging church, and its larger ideals, continue to emerge.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is working on a book about Christianity in professional sports.