I have been around the emergent conversation for about eight years now. My contact in the first few years was mostly isolated to an emergent group (Jacob’s Well) meeting in our church building. Over the last four years I have read more widely, attended an Emergent YM conference, hung out at Glorieta, NM, and involved myself in a variety of websites and blogs.
From the beginning, it has struck me that the emergent conversation was an evangelical and ex-evangelical phenomenon. Most of what I have experienced and read over the years confirms that perception, at least for the USA conversation. In more recent years, the conversation has begun to spread beyond evangelical circles. Folks from mainline denominations have been entering the discussion. While attending the Emergent Convention in Nashville last year, I was in a group with about 300 randomly chosen people when we were asked how many of us were from mainline denominations. Full two-thirds of the people raised their hands.
I am sure there were differing definitions of what “mainline” means. When I use the term I am referring to the old traditional definition of mainline which includes the following denominations and their predecessors: American Baptist Churches (USA), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ. I doubt that all those raising their hands were from one of these denominations. Still, the presence of mainliners was substantial. This presents some interesting challenges for the emergent conversation.
Evangelical and mainline participants have been propelled into the emergent conversation from different contexts. Here is how I would contrast the two contexts. (I apologize for over simplifying here but I do so for the sake of brevity.)
Many USA emergent evangelicals have come to the conversation from very conservative/fundamentalist contexts, especially Southern Baptist and independent church settings. The congregations in these contexts have been at the margins of society for most of the last century and until the last generation have tended to be culturally isolationist. They have seen themselves as the champions of biblical inerrancy and the authority of the Word. Cultural changes in the 1960s led to a re-engagement with culture in the 1970s, mainly focused on conserving critical social institutions
Mainline denominations dominated Christianity up until the 1960s. They were the churches of the culture and tended to be seen as the institutions that provided the moral under pinning for American society. The changes in the 1960s, especially the civil rights movement, brought mainliners into the arena of protest. Since that time, the leadership of the mainline denominations has tended to find its unity on public policy advocacy and has largely abandoned the work of embodying the person of Jesus Christ in its members and congregations. While the professional and elected leadership is decidedly left-leaning in both theology and politics, the rank-and-file tend to be more moderate to conservative.
The evangelical context has tended to produce congregations led by charismatic leaders. Many evangelicals seem to come from small legalistic congregations, large program driven mega-churches, or Baby-Boomer style contemporary churches. Commitment to the congregation’s institutions is often seen as a sign of fidelity to faith in God.
Mainliners find themselves in dwindling denominations that were once highly respected in the culture. They had bureaucracies for addressing every concern and need. Members dutifully looked to the denominational structures for guidance. With the shift from embodiment to protest, large numbers of mainline members have become alienated from the denominational structures even as the structures disintegrate. Styles of worship are often seen as archaic and there is considerable mistrust about the motives of people in denominational structures. Theological ignorance has become widespread. Commitment to the Church’s institutions and traditions are often considered above theological concerns.
The evangelical context has largely been about preserving fundamental doctrine, or at least the authority of scripture, from erosion by "liberal" theology. In doing so, it is has often used overly rationalistic tools in service of a fierce commitment to inerrancy, or something very close to it.
The mainline denominations have been focused on the “scholarly” study of scripture, which has often embraced a wide variety of “progressive” theologies that usually end up lending support for prophetic protest of this or that injustice. Running deep underneath all this is the notion of a universal experience of God common to everyone. By being inclusive of all voices, we will better be able to hear the voice of God. Universalism is sometimes implied if not affirmed. Scripture becomes an inspirational guide to hearing God’s voice but it has little authority over daily practice in our lives.
Public Policy and Witness
Those coming from the evangelical context find conservative Republican politics strongly evidenced in their leadership and in their congregations. The Republican Party platform and the public policy statements for churches in this context are usually one in the same.
Those coming from the mainline context are usually moderate to conservative in their politics but the leadership is decidedly left leaning. Thus, the public policy statements issued come out looking like copies of the Democrat Party platform. Furthermore, this center-right view of the membership with the leftist view of the leadership creates endless skirmishes over a host of issues. The fight over ordination to ministry of people engaging in homosexual activity has been on the agenda of national meetings for almost thirty years now.
What I see at work in both contexts is a combination of institutional and theological disenchantment, yet the disenchantment is markedly different in the two contexts.
When it comes to worship, evangelical emergents (EE) are often looking for something more authentic and mystery filled than a bible teaching with either sentimental hymns or canned praise music. I think mainline emergents (ME) are looking for the same out of dissatisfaction with what they feel are stale and outmoded traditions that have lost their ability to symbolically communicate. Though coming at the issues from slightly different angles, I think emergents from both traditions are moving on more or less parallel paths.
I think both EEs and MEs sense that our ecclesiology is broken. I hear considerable consensus about the need for embodiment and authentic community. The MEs don’t seem ready to abandon their structures as many EEs have but I think there are strong kindred spirits when it comes to exploring ecclesiology.
Where I think the stark contrast comes into play is in the areas of theology and public witness. EEs are almost universally coming to the conversation wanting to broaden the discussion from narrow legalistic confines. They want to explore emerging ways of understanding biblical authority. The MEs come from two streams. One stream is more theologically liberal and rejoices at what they see as the emergent shift in their direction. The other stream is more theologically orthodox but has rejected both the legalistic inerrancy stance of fundamentalism and has also come to reject and actively resist the liberal theological streams within their own contexts. They too are looking for new way to be the church. I would place myself among the later group.
From the perspective I have just described, the emergent conversation is very refreshing. The questions are being asked in the evangelical circles that we orthodox MEs have been wrestling with for years. That is the good part. The downside is that many of the avenues being explored sound no different than the progressive mindset we are inundated with in our mainline denominational structures. The dialog is often anything but new to us.
Similarly, I can appreciate the desire of EEs to distance themselves from the Religious Right. Yet I often get the sense that what is driving the public witness of too many EEs is the desire to be contra-evangelical. The fact is that not everything the Religious Right champions is necessarily wrong and the rush to embrace every progressive political cause is not an appropriate Christ directed response either.
I think the confusion in all this is much larger than I had originally thought. When EEs begin articulating progressive views that sound much too familiar to orthodox MEs, the MEs are inclined to tune them out as liberal modernists. When MEs begin articulating views about the abuse of scripture, or giving positive assessments of political views also championed by the Religious Right, there is a tendency for EMs to dismiss MEs as conservative modernists. That is my take as one mainline participant in the conversation. I have no grand solutions to offer. Just something to think about.