Emergent Church: New Links, Old Traditions

Emergent Church: New Links, Old Traditions

by J. Todd Billings

From the Church Herald, April 2007 (denominational magazine for the Reformed Church in America)

There is a new buzz in the neighborhood, called “emergent churches” or the “emergent conversation.” Whether they self-identify as “younger evangelicals” or “postmoderns” or “post-evangelicals,” this group of Generation X and Y Christians moves to a different dance from the “baby boomer” generation. No more seeker-sensitive, boiled-down Christianity, with its obsession with “relevance”–as if the New Testament was written in 1970 or so. Instead, “ancient” is better, and “tradition” is becoming a good word again.

While we should be cautious about passing trends, the movement known as the emergent church has begun to capture the attention of the RCA. Brian McLaren, a key emergent leader, addressed the 2006 General Synod on how to become a missional church. In west Michigan, steeped in Reformed perspective, 12,000-plus persons flock weekly to Mars Hill Bible Church, with emergent pastor Rob Bell. There is no sign in front of this church, located in a mall. You will not hear an easy-going seeker sermon about positive thinking. Instead, you are likely to hear a thirty- to forty-minute sermon with refrains about knowing God “mystically,” about “the mystery of Christ,” about discipleship as a way of “sacrifice.”

In contrast to the boomer generation, emergent leaders often speak about how their generation is tired of the ahistorical Christianity of seeker-sensitive churches. They want to rediscover the ancient traditions of the church. While there are relatively few official emergent churches, the movement illustrates generational tensions at play in a wide range of churches.

Generational Contrasts

Let’s explore the characteristics of the emergent culture in relation to the boomer culture in the RCA with two fictional characters: Boomer Bill and Emergent Alex.

Boomer Bill grew up in an RCA church in the 1950s and 1960s, learning the Heidelberg Catechism and the doctrinal heritage of the Reformed faith, with a fair amount of suspicion toward “outsiders.” In college in the turbulent early 1970s, Bill came to a conclusion that has shaped his later Christian life: the RCA needs to open up from a narrow confessionalism, become more ethnically and cultural inclusive, and return to the Bible as the source for church identity. For Bill, “tradition” is a negative word: it represents the narrow viewpoints of the past that need to be expanded through a broader form of Christianity, still drawing upon the Bible, but not stuck in “Reformed distinctives.”

Emergent Alex grew up in an RCA church that had boomers like Bill as leaders. Thus, Alex did not learn the Heidelberg Catechism or Reformed distinctives, but she did learn about the Bible and the compelling call that Jesus Christ has on her life. As a result, Alex is committed to the Christian faith but is not quite sure why her church’s denomination is called Reformed. In college, Alex–like her friends–attended all sorts of churches, from Pentecostal to Roman Catholic, from Episcopal to Baptist. Alex and her peers have seen it all.

But as Alex enters her mid-20s, she realizes that all faith communities have histories, and she needs a place to stand. She appreciates the good things about the different churches that she has attended, but something is missing: a sense of identity that is deeper than the most recent altar call or call to action. If she is to eventually raise a family in a church, she wants to know: what does the church believe? Why does it operate the way that it does? What practices hold it together, and do these practices go back to the early church?

A major concern of Bill has been that Christianity be presented in a fresh, relevant way. For Alex, tradition is a word met with some hope, pointing the way to a Christianity that is deeper and more centered than the always-changing, relevance-oriented Christianity of Bill.

Generational stereotypes are always limited, but the story gets to some of the generational divide that can hinder communication and understanding between the generations. Younger generations in the RCA do not, in general, feel “restricted” in their faith because of Reformed distinctives. Many of them do not even know what these distinctives are. Instead, they have grown up with a Christianity that feels somewhat “generic” and undefined, so they are on a search for traditions, for places to stand. They do not want to reestablish a narrow confessionalism. But they feel that Christianity without connections to the ancient church is a Christianity that is nebulous, defined by whatever the latest group of “seeker-sensitive” preachers sees as their new market.

Strengths of the RCA

I believe the RCA has resources that can connect with Emergent Alex and other persons of an emergent culture.

First, the RCA is ecumenically and socially engaged. The fact that the RCA is in communion with other denominations and cooperates with a wide range of Christian groups in mission is a plus. Persons from an emergent culture may want a place to stand, but they do not want to be isolated from other believers and their service for Jesus Christ in the world. God has blessed the RCA in being an ecumenically engaged fellowship of believers.

Second, the RCA has a confessional tradition that is not narrow but opens up resources of the ancient church that would be inaccessible from a nondenominational standpoint. Reformed confessions give us a sacramental theology that draws upon the ancient traditions of the patristic writers while staying grounded in the distinctly biblical vision of our life as one of communion with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Reformed identity is not just “Protestant,” it is deeply catholic. One weakness of the emergent movement is that its nondenominational standpoint tends to cut it off from ancient, ecumenical traditions rather than open it up to these.

Third, the missional theology that the RCA is exploring with Our Call is attractive to the emergent culture. Missional theology can remind us of the Reformed priority of divine action–the church’s work is “not about us,” but about God’s own mission in the world. We have the privilege of participating in God’s mission in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. We should not organize our churches around “business as usual,” but around the fact that our very identity is one of being called into God’s mission to the world: restoring, saving, and redeeming the creation through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The emergent culture issues a cry for something God-centered and focused on the center of the faith itself: Jesus Christ.

Challenges to the RCA

Yet, the emergent culture also brings special challenges for the RCA.

Although interested in ancient Christian traditions, the emergent culture is quite suspicious of denominational structures. Some, like Emergent Alex, have grown up in a denomination, but the network of emergent churches proper is nondenominational in background and ethos. Those in the emergent culture will not join a denomination simply to have a “brand name” Christianity–they are looking at the potential fruit of being in fellowship with other churches.

The emergent culture is more likely to be attracted to Christian denominations that have an identifiable theological tradition than to nondenominational churches. For Emergent Alex, if all that a denomination has is rules and structure but no guiding theological logic, why bother? If the RCA is to have functionally independent churches, without a discernable theological heritage, it provides persons in the emergent culture little incentive to join.

Another challenge is for the RCA to rediscover the mystery and power of God in worship, particularly in the sacraments. Leaders in the emergent movement want to worship God in wonder and mystery, rediscovering the mystical dimensions of the faith. They want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it. Sacraments like baptism are being rediscovered by the emergent culture because people are desperate for something ancient and lasting and meaningful.

The emergent church movement has been criticized as “trendy,” and its interest in ancient traditions often looks superficial, as if one could pick and choose pleasing “ancient traditions” from a smorgasbord to meet our needs for transcendence.

Although generational dynamics are always in flux, the RCA would be amiss in ignoring the concerns of these upcoming generations. Churches and RCA leaders should realize that becoming more and more like a “generically Christian” church is simply not going to be attractive to younger generations. Even by boomer standards of being a “seeker-sensitive” church, generic Christianity is not an effective mode of outreach.

The emergent culture challenges us to rediscover our identity in Jesus Christ, an identity that is connected with other parts of Christ’s body (ecumenical), committed to practices and beliefs from the church’s past (confessional), yet always open to God’s new work in mission to the world (missional).

J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary.