Christians have never been a static group. From the very beginnings of the religion, different members have had different ideas on what Jesus said and what Jesus meant. From the Gnostics to the Roman Catholics to the Protestants to the Mormons, the debate has raged and will always rage. So the recent attention to a group of people calling for an “emergent” church reflects yet another in a religion’s rich tradition of debate and disagreement.
The emergent church is difficult to define, but its adherents all point to the need for Christianity to find a new voice in global society, and they all express a dissatisfaction with the way today’s churches engage with the world around them. But they are not the first Christians to experience these challenges. Take, for instance, the case of John Calvin, 16th-century theologian and Protestant Reformer. Calvin, born on July 10, 1509 (500 years ago Friday), faced a crisis of epic proportions in Geneva and across Europe.
Martin Luther, the German monk who had ignited what became known as the Protestant Reformation, helped to crack the foundations of European society – the notion that there was one church and one state (albeit full of fractious nobles). By the time Calvin arrived on the scene, the issue was no longer how to tell the Roman Catholic Church that you disagreed with it. Now it was how to construct a new model for the relationship between church and state. Enter the “early modern” era.
Calvin had ideas about how that relationship would work in the early modern period, even if he didn’t know it was the early modern era. He laid out a plan for Geneva that gave lip service to the separation of church and state, but in practice looked more like the state was the subject of the church. The model for Geneva worked well enough, and in the process, Calvin’s ideas spawned even more groups of Protestants. One such group, the Pilgrims, separated themselves from the Church of England and sought refuge in the New World.
How the colonies became the United States and how the Old World model of church and state vanished in North America is a tale too long and too complex for this space. Suffice it to say that the shining city on a hill became a model, if occasionally flawed, of religious freedom. But the second half of the 20th century saw changes neither Calvin nor his immediate followers could have foreseen. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a global economy, the rejection of racial categories, and the interest in “non-Western” religions – all of these factors challenged the way traditional Christian denominations saw themselves and their mission.
And so enters the “emergent church.” In many ways, this movement has numerous parallels in Christian history. From the Disciples of Christ, which formed as a way of ending denominations and became a denomination itself, to the What Would Jesus Do? Movement, based on a book, “In His Steps,” an 1896 novel by Charles Sheldon, American Christians in general have seen the world as threatening their work and sought a way to redefine a more “pure” version of Christianity.
The emergent church faces the dilemma of something called “postmodernism.” If Calvin championed an early form of modernity, postmodernism argues that all the rules of modernity are no longer valid. Religious modernity, for the postmodern, often means the domination of Christianity in any attempt at dialogue with other religions. But what does the Christian do if the rules have changed? How to hold fast to absolutes when other faiths have the audacity to argue back, or, even worse, walk away?
The answer, for members of the emergent church, is to motivate the believer in dialogue, to urge members to do mission work but often on a more local level, and to evangelize. The various emergent churches springing up in the last 20 years do not always share theological or political views. Indeed, they range from the conservative to the liberal-leaning. But even in those divergent ideas, they can agree that they dislike the way that current Christian denominations go about their business.
The adherents of the emergent church are often described as “anti-church,” that is, that they believe organized Christianity today does not speak truth to power and fails to spread the Gospel effectively. Much like the 19th-century originators of the Disciples of Christ, they disdain traditional denominational politics.
But this dislike of denominations may indeed lead the emergent churches into their own denomination-building phase. Their shared dislike of denominationalism is, in itself, a stand on the issues facing Christianity today. Much like Calvin, Luther, and other Reformers, the emergent church movement will soon find itself having to organize to advance its cause.
That organizational process will lead the emergent church movement to define more concretely its aims and values. And this new organization will be part of a long, and, for Christianity, a completely normal process. There is no straight line back through history to Jesus; there is a series of unfoldings of human understanding, or, in other words, an emergence.
Mary Beth Mathews is assistant professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this for the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star.
Collin Hansen/Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star