This a long post and there’s probably more to come later. I’m into something. This is not a coherent essay either, that will come later, so this may jump around a bit. Again, I’m into something and hoping people will converse.
I am quickly working my way through Tony Jones’ new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. I’ve become convinced that the liberal church’s main challenge both in terms of membership and as far as raising a voice in the public square is not the fundamentalist mega-church, but the growing, decade-old movement that calls itself Emergent Christianity (see Emergent Village). The reason? You don’t need to differentiate yourself from folks who are obviously miles apart from you on the theological and political spectrum, you need to differentiate yourself from your closest competition. The writers of the Gospels set up the Pharisees as the enemies of Jesus, because that was the sect of first century Judaism that most closely resembled their own spiritual and theological worldview. In the coming years of the first quarter of the 21st century the liberal church will have to make its case to Generation X and Y and their children as to why be a UU instead of an Emergent Christian, not why be a UU instead of a fundamentalist or a Catholic.
The irony is that what sets the Emergent movement apart from its Evangelical brethren and has them up in arms are some things the liberal church went through theologically years, even centuries ago, such as the appeal to reason, the literary and historical criticism of scripture, the willingness to abandon old forms for pastoral need. What the liberal church didn’t go through at the same time however was (due to the epoch) post-modernism. Post-modernism has now caught up with mainstream American Christianity and produced the Emergent movement, causing it to go through theological shifts the liberal church went through a long time ago. The liberal church however, having gone through the theological and philosophical shifts a long time ago became culturally entombed in modernism and isn’t prepared to pastorally care for folks who have come of age or have grown into an age that is culturally post-modern. Thus the head scratching when a church, such as the UUA with it’s ultra liberal ideas and socially open-minded positions can’t fill its pews.
The Emergent critique is of both the religious right and religious left, of the fundamentalist mega-church and the leftist theopolitical mainline. In The New Christians, Tony Jones turns to the example of Lillian Daniel, a UCC minister who had this to say about the UCC’s general synod:
“We used to be a group of revolutionaries. Now we’re a group of resolutionaries.” (my italics) Operating by the distinctly non-biblical Robert’s Rules of Order, she said, the convention has devolved into a gathering of persons who read resolutions that are then voted on and promptly ignored or forgotten. The resolutions range from those for gay marriage to those against gay marriage, from a call to study the imprisonment of native Havaiians to “saving Social Security from privatization.” The resolutions pile up; then they’re read, seconded, discussed, voted on, and filed. (Jones 9-10)
Aren’t UU’s in the same boat? Are we resolutionaries instead of revolutionaries? The UUA General Assembly is analogous to the UCC’s General Synod. Although UU’s would never even consider a resolution opposing gay marriage, all the others could pop up at GA and too few are the congregations where resolutions passed at GA actually become a living, breathing part of congregational life.
What Jones (and the Emergent critique in general) seems to miss is that the Emergent critique of Christianity leads to an inevitable next step theologically – an ever widening liberalism. This battle within liberal Christianity has already been fought – by us, Unitarians and Universalists throughout the 19th century as the struggle between liberal Christians and Transcendentalists gave way to the struggle between liberal Christians and Humanists. The Emergents think they can adopt the post-modern stance and not let it get down that road, that Emergent is a Christians- only movement. I don’t think so. I think the movement begs for serious study because their critique of the religious left is as spot on as their critique of the religious right. Emergents also refuse to issue a doctrinal statement (sound familiar, UU’s?) to the consternation of their Evangelical contemporaries.
Following the subtitle of his book, Tony Jones issues this first dispatch from the “emergent frontier.”
Dispatch 1: Emergents find little importance in the discrete differences between flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements.
In essence, Emergent Christians look left at the mainline, look right at the fundamentalists and say: A pox on both your houses.
The idea of community is very important to Emergents and not just community where one can get lost, but a community with an idea and an identity – a community with a missional purpose. What is my church doing in the world? How am I, How are we – making a difference? And not just on far away letter writing type of issues, but right here in our neighborhood on bedrock issues: hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism. The gathering and building of community in the Emergent movement and in Emergent churches is based on the post-modern social networking model, not the old mainline and mega-church institutional model.
(I see an analog to this in the Presidential campaign with the rise of Obama this year. I do not support Obama because he’s a Democrat. I support him in spite of the fact he’s a Democrat. I ran for office as a member of the Green Party and I’m not a fan of the duopoly two-party system. I tend to say, a pox on both your houses in that regard, but Obama’s really is the first post-modern campaign. It has hit on some of the things coming to light in the Emergent movement, but in a political context: Community, collective consciousness, social networking, a hope-based missional narrative.)
Looking at this from a UU perspective, perhaps the reason why our congregations are not growing is not a lack of a snazzy marketing campaign, nor is it the latest trend adopted by mega-churches (in fact if we’re trying to catch up to them, we’ve already missed the bus and are a step behind the trend), but rather, maybe, just maybe it’s because we are not practicing a generous, missional heterodoxy. We have become stuffy old mainline churches, just like the stuffy old Christian churches Emergent Christians no longer find hospitable. It’s worth exploring.
Tony Jones reports that he surveyed 8 Emergent congregations in 2006 and that the average age in attendance was 32.5 and he compares that to the average of church goers in America at age 50.
Whatever Emergents are doing they are successful at bringing in younger folks and younger families, something our UU congregations struggle with. For as much as we stand in a different place theologically, to many unchurched, many of our churches still resemble, well, “church.”
The Emergents are called out by other Evangelicals for accepting gays and lesbians, for environmental activism, criticizing the war in Iraq, and being pro-choice. They are fast on their way to becoming like us, we may well be served to learn how we might be a bit like them.
There is a movement not tied to old forms, emerging in spirit, not just in Christianity, looking for religious community. Will Unitarian Universalism be there? Or will we be making resolutions about what to do in a revolutionary age?