12 November 2006

mcknight on emerging

For some time I've been trying to get my mind wrapped around what the "emerging church" phenonemon is about. What I've observed is pretty diverse, some of it very congenial, some of encouraging, some of it confusing, some of it troubling. Part of me suspects that I would easily enough fit into the category, broadly construed, given my own background, studies, and interests. But I also wonder how helpful some aspects of "emerging" are and how useful a concept as stretchy as "emerging" might be.

Last month Westminster Theological Seminary hosted a forum on the emerging church at which Scot McKnight of North Park University presented some of his thoughts on the emerging church, providing what I found to be a helpful overview. If you'd like, you can read the full text of his talk, "What Is the Emerging Church?" (pdf).

McKnight's aims are modest and situated, more of a sketch than, say, a detailed genealogy, and aimed primarily at an American context, more so than, say, how the emerging church functons in the UK. Given the complexity of the phenomenon that McKnight is trying to describe, his remarks are appropriately qualified and flexible. As Aristotle says in another context, "Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions."

In his talk, McKnight attempts to explain the emerging church using the image of a lake ("Lake Emerging") that has four rivers flowing into it: postmodernism, praxis, postevangelicalism, and politics. The point here, in part, is that different people within the larger category of "emerging" may find themselves in very different places - different edges or depths of the lake, so to speak, drinking more deeply of one or more of the four rivers flowing into it.

After all, "emerging" includes missonally Reformed figures such as Mark Driscoll, emergent postconservatives such as Brian McLaren, various sorts of house churches, as well as a re-tooled evangelicalism that, in its attempt to reach out to a contemporary audience, freely draws upon a variety of resources, both ancient and postmodern. As such, any set of emerging "marks" need to remain somewhat open-ended and elastic.

Based on McKnight's talk, it seems that if we wanted to define the emerging movement, we could say that it is a missional ecclesiology that:

[1] engages with postmodernity both as a cultural phenomenon and in terms of how theory and practice might reorient our theology

[2] embraces a Christian praxis that rethinks and reshapes:

[a] worship in terms of how we have traditionally “done church”

[b] orthopraxy as central to Christian faith

[c] social justice as transformative suffering with others

[d] proclamation as missionally going out to draw others towards Christ

[3] contructs a postevangelical critique of evangelicalism’s complicity with modernity as blunting the wholistic force of the Gospel and biblical narrative

[4] promotes an approach to politics that refuses simplistic left-right dichotomies of the American two-party system, though often strategically leaning leftward

If so - and assuming it’s an accurate portrayal of what “emerging” is about - then I must say that it deeply resonates with me on a lot of levels and how my own thinking has evolved over the past decade and a half.

In future posts on this topic, I want to dip into each of these four areas a bit more deeply, jumping off of McKnight's talk. I'm particularly interested in what we can learn from the emerging church inasmuch as it presents an alternative way of thinking about and practicing what it means to be a Christian in our contemporary context.

Such an alternative creates a space in which we can gain distance upon our own tradition and practices, thereby learning about ourselves and how we might better contextualize the Gospel for a changing world. While there may be areas in which the emerging conversation itself may be open to criticism, my intent is more to take up a posture of listening and learning than that of critique.