17 September 2005

Emerging = evangelical?

I keep on hearing things in the news lately that threaten, with their combined weight, to break my heart. The problem--the crisis, really--is that described in the article linked in my last post. In brief: the world and this nation are groaning in poverty, injustice, and war. Jesus' heart would have broken--Jesus' heart does break. The Christian right, who believe in making faith part of public and political life (and do very effectively make faith a very big part of public and political life), somehow don't think those are God's priorities. The Christian left, for whom counteracting poverty, injustice, and war are (sometimes) priorities, don't believe in making faith a part of public and political life, and if they did, they'd be laughed off the stage as irrelevant. Because we are overwhelmingly a (professedly) Christian nation, I don't think it's possible to say that these problems will be solved in this country through secular means. One or another form of Christianity is going to heavily influence the public debate and limit the effectiveness of secular solutions.

Of course, secular organizations and a great many faith-based organizations are doing huge amounts of good, but what kills me is the vast reservoir of untapped resources that we could lay claim to if the two sides of the left-right gulf within Christianity could somehow be persuaded to stop fighting each other and get busy with the mission Jesus gave us. Lefties: news flash: we have a mission. We are expected to get our asses in gear. If you haven't found a community that is helping you see how your faith should be transforming you and the world, let me know; I'll help you look for one. Righties: news flash: the mission is not primarily about beating people over the head regarding personal morality issues. It's primarily about healing the world and its people and inviting them to join us in that adventure.

So, I'll call that Problem Number One.

In related news, people have been noticing for decades now that both the Christian left and right are mightily missing the point. They have been at a loss to see what a Christian identity and a Christian community could possibly have to do with them. And, they've had kids. So we have whole generations of folks 35 and under, especially in urban areas, who have zero connection to the Christian faith story. Some of them may have been half-heartedly connected with a Christian church in their childhood. Based on that slim connection, they may decide to give the church another try some day. Maybe not. Lots of younger folks, however, have zero exposure to Christianity apart from the media and some Christian folks they may know. (Note that I'm not primarily talking about folks brought up in a non-Christian faith, but folks brought up with no faith.)

Like as not, these Christians are of either the right-wing-check-your-brain-(and-heart?)-upon-entering-the-church variety, or else the left-wing-check-your-faith-upon-exiting-the-church variety. I myself knew lots of Christians growing up, but with the exception of my Grandfather (some day I'll blog about Papa, one of my chief role models), my impression of every one of them was one or the other of those stereotypes. No doubt this was a grossly unfair impression in many cases (in fact, I've since learned that it certainly was), but I can nonetheless understand why, for many of these younger folks, the idea of joining a church makes about as much sense for them personally as the idea of joining the circus. But a lot of these younger folks want very much to make a positive difference in the world, if only they knew where to begin, and who could help them find a way to do that.

I'll call that Problem Number Two.

In the face of these two problems, I must admit that I get a little worked up when I hear people say that the Emerging Church conversation is a phenomenon of evangelicals, for evangelicals, relevant only to evangelicals. Yes, it began among (primarily nondenominational and Baptist) evangelical Protestants. Yes, to this day most of the conversation's leading lights and rank-and-file folks hail from that background. And yes, many of the books I've been reading on the Emerging Church pretty much assume that their audience consists exclusively of evangelical Protestants. The thinking, I guess, is that since a core assumption of the Emerging Church is that Christians are on a mission from Jesus that should transform their lives and give them an active, outward-directed faith, and since that's not the sort of faith that is associated with liberal mainliners, liberal mainliners are probably not interested. (Also, a lot of emerging writing seems to be geared toward getting conservatives to consider the "generous" part of "generous orthodoxy", which many liberals already get.)

OK, I follow this line of thinking, but let's assume for the sake of argument that I'm right in saying that a large part of the business of the Emerging Church is to work on finding solutions to Problems One and Two. Further, let's say I'm right in claiming that the Emerging Church folks are having some success in that business.

So I ask you: What exactly about Problems One and Two makes them a bigger issue for evangelicals than for largely-liberal mainliners? My opinion: nothing. My own mainline church is one that gets, to a large extent, that faith should transform us and cause us to transform the world, but despite that, I see very few folks age 20 to 35 when I look around in our worship services. When I travel, I generally attend Episcopal or Lutheran churches, and guess what? I see the same thing there as well. Problem Two is not an evangelical, nondenominational problem. It's a Christian problem--and for all I know, it's probably a Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist problem as well. And Problem One is obviously equally "our" problem in the mainline--maybe more so, since both sides of the left/right squabble are well represented in our denominations and are very busy tearing them apart from the inside. So if the Emerging conversation is finding answers to these problems, how on earth can we sit back and say, "All of this sounds great! We're certainly glad some of you evangelicals are learning to be more generous! Keep us posted!"

Aaargh! No! We have to join this conversation. We've been invited, specifically, on multiple occasions, by multiple leaders in the Emerging Church--and by "we" I mean mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians alike. And I personally know many mainline individuals and congregations which are engaging this conversation. And for me, personally, these two problems are something that I feel very strongly called to help solve--perhaps to devote the rest of my life to helping solve. Tomorrow evening, several fellow disciples and I will gather at my church to talk about starting an Emerging-style service at Holy Comforter--a small step in this direction, or so I pray. God, if it's your will,be with us as we try to engage both emerging generations and our brothers and sisters from other parts of the Body of Christ in new ways. Amen.

1 comment:

Helen Thompson said...

Hey there. I'm gallycat of http://gallycat.livejournal.com not-much-fame, and I've occasionally tuned into your journal. I live in western Fairfax and go to St. Anne's, but I'm very keen on the issues you bring up here.

Because I've worked a bit with Sojourners, mostly as a member of the press, I too have become aware of this weird delineation between protestant evangelical baptist/nondenominational emergent church and that which speaks to us as liberal mainline protestants, mine with a healthy smattering of Buddhism to keep its heretical edge. In the past two years, I've become convinced that the paranoia surrounding the left's antireligious stance is the result of directly associating religion with the religious right. I've started writing professionally about the phenomenon, and I have it in my head to wrap my brain around to a book proposal to describe why faith and politics are not the oil and vinegar we've always taken for granted that it should be.

I am, however, so new to this realization, which hit me like a ton of bricks after the last election, that I am still grappling with my sudden leadership role as a voice of progressive faith for progressive people, where we learn to understand fundamentalists rather than fear them, and where we learn to speak to people's need for spirituality in a new language of faith and thanksgiving.

Marcus Borg spoke of an emerging faith, notsomuch the emergent church as it's been branded by some evangelicals. I wonder what we could do to bring to life an evangelical center, where we don't check our faith anywhere, nor do we bash it over other peoples' heads.

Bless you!