As I’ve been reading Phyllis Tickle’s new book Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters in preparation for the conference of the same name in Memphis which begins tomorrow, I’ve been reflecting on the past 10+ years of involvement on the periphery of the emerging church movement (if that is what it is) and more specifically what can we show after 10 years of conversation. Certainly, as Phyllis documents well, there have been some new and very cool expressions of “church,” be they communities like Solomon’s Porch or neo-monastic groups like Rutba House. There has been the marriage of “ancient” and “future” (to use Robert Webber’s descriptor). There have been demonstrations of “new kinds of Christianity,” not always at the forefront of attention, but having significant impacts in the communities in which they live and work.
However, the question that remains for me is if the emergence conversation has had any impact on the broader, institutional church. Some will say (cough…Tony Jones…) that there is no future for the already established, institutional church and that we should treat it with respect as we help it die a peaceful death (actually Tony might argue for assisted suicide, but that’s another blog post). There are others of us that understand (which Phyllis affirms) that reform movement often create something new, but also bring forth changes from the institutions that they are pushing against. Have changes been happening in traditional communions like my own? Are there influences from the emergent conversation that have begun to make their way into “traditional” church life and practice.
I can only speak for my communion, the United Methodist Church, but I would have to say that there are, albeit very subtly and often without direct attribution to the minds of emergent. Certainly among a younger generation of church leaders the lines of thought are pretty direct, with these leaders embracing new definitions of what it means to be church, and trying a host of creative experiments for creating Christian community. Yet I believe that the language and grammar of the emerging conversation has begun to spread throughout more traditional congregations and their leaders – leading to a split within the church between those who lift of the old way of thinking as normative for Christian life and practice, and those who understand that Christian discipleship is a holistic enterprise that moves away from focusing on numbers and members to transformative experiences and a great valuing of intensive communal life with one another. This split (lived out most fully at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa) is often characterized by the traditional labels of “conservative” and “liberal” but rather is more influences by different ways at looking at the world and defining Christian practice and community – differences that have been at the heart of the emerging church conversation.