If you are at all conversant with the goings on in the contemporary church, you have probably heard the term “emerging church.” It has become a common descriptor for alternative and nontraditional approaches to thinking about and doing church. As such it has taken on a wide array of meanings with both positive and negative connotations. Some see it as the great hope for the future of North American Christianity, while others view it as a harbinger of increasing cultural accommodation in the church and the sacrifice of orthodoxy for the sake of relevance. It all depends on who you ask.
As a member of a mainline church who teaches theology at an evangelical seminary and who has been involved in the emerging church conversation and in the leadership of Emergent Village, a community committed to fostering the concerns and values of the emerging church, I often get asked questions. These come from the curious, the hopeful, the concerned, and from those who are simply looking for further ammunition for their attacks. They want to know, What is the real story on the emerging church? What do people in this movement really believe about Christian faith and the church?
The difficulty with this sort of question is that it assumes that somewhere in the midst of a diverse conversation a succinct and straightforward answer to this question is possible. In one sense, there is. The emerging church is committed to the way of Jesus Christ. But in all the times I have fielded questions about the emerging church, this answer has never been satisfactory. People are asking for more, and I understand. They want details. What does it mean to follow in the way of Jesus? What theological and doctrinal convictions are assumed? What practices does this entail? These questions are understandable and legitimate. And more detail can be provided, but we must not lose sight of the basic commitment to follow the way of Jesus.
The story of the emerging church is found in the numerous and multifaceted micro-narratives among the individuals and communities that make up the fabric of the emerging church conversation. In other words, the real story is a plurality that works against the sort of reductions involved in the question, What does the emerging church believe? In a descriptive sense, the situation is similar to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. If you asked a participant in that movement what this diverse collection of so-called Protestant Christians really believed you could certainly find someone who would give you an answer, but it would vary greatly from person to person and place to place. Incidentally, if you asked many a faithful member of the long-established Roman Catholic Church, the response would certainly not have been positive.
Hence, while the Protestant church was characterized by plurality, this does not mean that Protestants were pluralists. They were committed to establishing the one true church over against the Roman Catholic Church, which they viewed as a distortion of the one true church. They were committed to one true way to be a Christian, the one right way to read the Bible, the one true system of doctrine, the one right set of practices. In their collective search different groups came up with alternative and competing conclusions on these matters. But these differences did not lead them to embrace plurality.
While the emerging church movement, or more preferably, the emerging church conversation is similarly characterized by the fact of plurality, it also affirms plurality as an appropriate and necessary manifestation of Christian community. It is this particular aspect of the emerging church that we will focus on here. From the perspective of those in the emerging church, plurality is not so much a problem to be overcome as it is a manifestation of the blessing and presence of God. It is not to be opposed, but rather something to be sought and celebrated.
This openness to plurality is in part the result of on-the-ground realities of rethinking church in a postmodern, post-Christian environment. Emerging churches have been described as communities that seek to practice the way of Jesus in the context of various postmodern cultures. This basic commitment calls forth openness to innovation and a variety of communal forms as the message and entailments of the gospel are proclaimed and socially embodied in new and ever-changing situations. The experience and forms of particular Christian communities emerge in the context of the concrete interaction between the gospel and the particular social, historical, and cultural situations in which these communities are embedded. The concrete social forms and practices of these emergent, missional communities cannot be predetermined apart from this contextual interaction.
From this perspective diversity is to be expected. No single set of assumptions, outlooks, viewpoints, and practices will be appropriate or necessary for every context and situation. And some things that are especially helpful and illuminating in one particular setting may in fact be counterproductive and misleading in another. One size will not fit all. Plurality is desired and required.
In addition to the on-the-ground realities, the characteristic openness to plurality that is part of the emerging church conversation is the result of explicit and implicit theological and hermeneutical assumptions in the thought and practices of those who identify with the emerging church. One of these is that the Bible is not a uniform set of documents that together teach a single system of doctrine or a single way of being the church. The Bible is not so much a single book as it is a collection of authorized texts written from different settings and perspectives. Each of the voices represented in the canonical collection maintains a distinct point of view that emerges from a particular time and place. In other words, the Bible itself is characterized by plurality. It is polyphonic, that is to say, made up of many voices and perspectives.
In this polyphonic collection, each voice makes a distinct contribution to the whole and none manifests dominance over the others. The presence of four Gospels provides the most obvious and instructive example of plurality in the biblical canon. The inclusion in the canon of four Gospel accounts points to the multifaceted and pluriform nature of the gospel message itself. It also stands as a paradigmatic affirmation that the witness of the Christian community to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in keeping with the canonical tradition, can never be contained in a single fixed perspective.
The multiplicity of the canonical witness to the gospel is not incidental to the shape of the community from which it emerged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit nor to the shape of the community which it envisions for the future. The Christian community is called to plurality by Scripture itself. Attempts to suppress the plurality of the canonical witness by means of an overarching universalistic account will lead to serious distortions of the gospel and the community that is called to bear witness to it. The plurality of forms and perspectives imbedded in the biblical witness suggests that no single voice or interpretive approach will be able to do justice to this diversity. Hence, the plurality of the Christian community should be welcomed as the appropriate means to bear witness to the gospel in accordance with the example of Scripture.
From this perspective, conversation becomes one of the primary values of the emerging church. It takes the whole church, in all of its diverse manifestations, to teach us about the meaning, scope, and significance of the gospel and to bear faithful witness to it in the world. This ongoing conversation is also the means by which we can be liberated from the hegemony and limitations of the dominant cultural narratives of our time as we listen to the voices of others who have not shared in these narratives.
This affirmation of plurality is reflected in one of the primary values articulated by the Emergent Village community on its website: “We are committed to honor and serve the church in all its forms—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Anabaptist. We practice ‘deep ecclesiology’—rather than favoring some forms of the church and critiquing or rejecting others, we see that every form of the church has both weaknesses and strengths, both liabilities and potential” (http://www.emergentvillage.com/about-information/values-and-practices). Out of this commitment comes the desire to be irenic and inclusive with respect to the plurality of traditions that make up the history and present reality of the Christian community and to learn from the church in all its forms.
This commitment to the plurality of the church leads to the articulation of four specific and concrete practices: (1) “To be actively and positively involved in a local congregation, while maintaining open definitions of ‘church’ and ‘congregation.’ We work in and with churches, seeking to live out authentic Christian faith in authentic Christian community”; (2) “To seek peace among followers of Christ, and to offer critique only prayerfully and when necessary, with grace, and without judgment, avoiding rash statements, and repenting when harsh statements are made”; (3) To speak positively of fellow Christians whenever possible, especially those with whom we may disagree”; and (4) “To build sincere friendship with Christians from other traditions.”
One important observation that arises from the articulation of these practices is that the label “emerging church” does not signify anything like a particular denomination. Rather, it is a movement that can be found within the various traditions of the church as well as on the edges of traditional forms of Christian community. Those who identify with the emerging church range from conservative to liberal on the ideological spectrum, although most are interested in moving beyond such labels, and come from both evangelical and mainline denominations as well as from independent churches and those interested in establishing Christian communities outside of these traditional contexts.
The commitment to plurality raises two particular challenges for the emerging church. First, while the Christian faith is properly characterized by multiple expressions, it is also true that not all expressions of Christianity are appropriate. Indeed the history of the church is littered with manifestations of Christian community that are at odds with the message of the gospel. The value of plurality must not lead to an “anything goes” type of mentality in the Christian community. Resisting this possibility is an ongoing challenge for those of us convinced of the importance of affirming and promoting plurality in the church.
Second, while the emerging church is committed to the plurality of Christian community, in many ways, for all of its variety of forms, it continues to reflect the relative lack of diversity that characterized the traditional ecclesial contexts from which it emerged. For the most part the conversation about the emerging church continues to be shaped primarily by the perspectives and concerns of the dominant social, intellectual, and cultural forms of the North American context. This has meant that for the most part, the emerging church conversation has attracted very little interest from those who do not share in these assumptions and outlooks and often feel excluded and alienated by them.
In order to address these challenges, we in the emerging church must be vigilant in the establishment and maintenance of a healthy and robust commitment to the discipline of self-criticism. Such a practice provides the context in which we make ourselves open to the work of the Holy Spirit and allow the Word of God to challenge and deconstruct our own assumptions and commitments in order to correct our shortcomings and failures and to broaden the horizons of our vision. We must develop this practice so that inappropriate forms of Christian community can be identified and corrected while at the same time allowing for the continued expansion of appropriate diversity and plurality in the church for the sake of the gospel and our participation in the mission of God.