A Letter to Friends of Emergent …

In my travels, I hear amazing things. Some of these amazing things are wonderful and profound. Others are ridiculous.
One of the ridiculous things is a lot of talk about the “postmodern church.” “We started a postmodern service,” people say, breathless with excitement. “It’s very cool.” They mean they play softer music and have candles. I feel queasy. I have nothing against softer music, if the lyrics are any good (which they too seldom are, but that’s another story) and I rather like candles.
But let’s get real: there are no postmodern churches, people. About this I would like to say two things, at least one of which I hope will not be ridiculous.
1. Having postmodern churches isn’t exactly the point.
However, before I try to say something nonridiculous about this obvious assertion, I must address one of the ridiculous critiques I hear of the whole emergent thing: “Those emergent people say modernity was bad,” the critics say, “but then they’re climbing into bed with postmodernity, making the same mistake.” Ah, a clever critique, if it were that simple. But the critique cleverly misses two complications:
Complication One: If one wants to do meaningful ministry among Spaniards or Arabs, one must speak Spanish or Arabic. If one wants to do meaningful ministry among modern people, one must to some degree enter into modernity. Us “emergent people” aren’t saying that’s purely bad. No, we’re saying that’s necessary. But here’s the problem: if the Spaniards and Arabs move out, and French and Chinese move in, then it’s a big mistake to still speak Spanish and Arabic. (The problem with the critics here is that they think they have a superior timeless gospel that floats above any culture whether modern or postmodern. They don’t realize that a timeless cultureless gospel that floats is a perfectly modern one!)
Complication Two: Even when translating the message into Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, or French, one must remember that no translation is perfect. The words are never enough. “Friend” and “amigo” might not mean exactly the same thing. “Jaweh” and “theos” and “God” might not mean the same thing to everyone who uses those terms. So … it’s possible to translate the message and (like that game where you pass on a message around a circle) by the time it’s been translated a few times, it’s completely garbled. So … modern translations of the gospel can become garbled, as can medieval, and postmodern, and patristic, etc., etc. Which reminds us that none of us has a complete grasp of the gospel. We can only hope and pray (words chosen intentionally) that the gospel has a strong enough hold on us that we can admit it when we’ve garbled things. (Which I believe we – meaning all of us – have.) It’s very dangerous to assume you’ve perfectly contained the gospel in your little formula.
So, the point is not having a gospel that postmodern people like, nor is it starting postmodern churches if that means churches that think the gospel has been finally and fully contained by them in its latest, most trendy fashion. Ugh. Rather, the point is having churches that bring the gospel of the kingdom of God to postmodern people with a style of incarnation that resonates with (and in fact continues) the original Incarnation. That’s not easy, and it isn’t accomplished by pasting candles or music or new seating arrangements on the old modern gospel articulations.
2. There won’t be postmodern churches (or better put, churches that deeply engage with postmodern cultures) until there are Christian theologies that are not written/spoken in modern-ese. Post-modern-ese theologies may have been conceived; they may be in the second week of prenatal development; but as far as I can tell, none have yet been born. These things take time, and premature births are risky. It’s better to let the womb of the Spirit take proper time to give birth what must come in the fulness of time.
Predictably, those trying to be midwives to these new theologies (note the plural) are being criticized as heretics, unorthodox, disturbers of the peace, etc. This is inevitable, and this is an opportunity for humility and gentleness and meekness (reviled, not reviling back) on their part, these virtues being ideal contexts in which things of the Spirit can gestate. We should pray for all who are involved in this labor. And we should pray for all those attacking the midwives. And we should be patient too, with everyone.
Along similar lines, my friend Ed Chin recently wrote the following in an email he sends out to some friends:
“… in my own devotional time this morning, I read John 3:31-32:
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard… (“The Message” translates this passage as: “The earthbound is earthbound and speaks earth language; the heavenborn is in a league of his own. He sets out the evidence of what he saw and heard in heaven…”)
“The primary reason I ever attend a church service (or, frankly, even have serious or long conversations with Christians) is the hope that I will hear something proclaimed out of heaven, something that carries the majesty, the revelation, the heart and breath of God. I want my heart to burn with a word from Heaven. I want to hear something which rumbles through the corridors of His chamber and then creates a sonic boom when it enters my “earth space.” I am not interested in a 3-point guide for living or recycled Oprah or political perspectives or even a Bible study or exploring “styles of worship.” And, I’m not looking for more apologetics and theology.
“I want the sound of Heaven to invade my heart, scare the hell out of me, and split me wide open. I want my “Edness” to spill out on the ground and for Him to take up residence in the suddenly empty vessel.
“We all know that the more traditional churches live in a ghetto of unreality; they speak only to themselves, write books for themselves, and make music for themselves. No one else has any clue what they’re saying. That’s why serious people have been ignoring them for a couple of decades.
“While I appreciate the freshness and youthfulness of “the emergent church” (or “postmodern church movement” as some call it), sometimes I think they have simply become better conversationalists. They’ve learned the language and the concepts of the natives and are very good about engaging them in real conversations. I greatly admire and enjoy that. But, very honestly, I’ve not heard very much in that world that really testifies of anything seen in Heaven. Like most other church worlds, they speak from a distinct “earthview” and in a distinct earth-language.”
Ed is telling us something humbling, something we need to hear. The emergent movement (a dangerous term – see next paragraph) has wonderful promise, but it could just become another marketing gimmick to sell books, build egos, and bolster sagging spirits with a new invisible wardrobe for a pudgy, pasty old emporer. No doubt, in some quarters it will squander its potential, but if you care about the possibilites being actualized … please … let’s aim deep and high.
Wendell Berry, one of the people whose writings most fill my soul, has something important to say about movements. I hope you’ll take a couple of minutes and read his article at:
(Thanks, Jeremiah Smith, for the link). Everything Berry says there is relevant to us.
If you’re coming to one of the emergent conventions this spring, I hope you’ll help us set a tone of depth, sincerity, good cheer, good humor, optimism, faith, humility, cordiality, friendship, and fun. Try to leave your toxicity at home. Deconstruction is important, and there’s a time and place for it … but there is a time for constructive conversations too, and this is such a time. Come trusting God to do something impossible … namely, to help us rise high above (or dig deep beneath) the superficiality which characterizes most of our culture, secular and religious … so that, as Ed said above, we can hear of things seen in heaven booming (or whispering) on earth.
Praying that this will be so – Brian