One of the things I love about the connections created by blooging is the chance to take part in, or at least listen in on, conversations I might otherwise miss. And, once again, it also means there is more to learn. One of the words I read a lot, in relation to conversations on the church, is emergent, which, I confess, I’m still trying to understand. Since moving out of Southern Baptist life and into the United Church of Christ over fifteen years ago, I’ve lost track of much of what was being discussed in evangelical life mostly because I was so discouraged by watching Baptists beating up on themselves and so encouraged by the new home I found in the UCC that I just didn’t listen. Writing this blog and reading others has reconnected me to some of that conversation as well as finding out about some of the others taking place in and between other denominations.
And I keep hearing the word emergent, alongside of words like organic and evolutionary. I resonate with the desire to see the church be vibrant, essential, and effective in our world and I struggle, some, with what I read as I try to understand. In all the talk about emergent I have listened to, one of the things I hear underneath (whether it’s being said or not) is that churches like mine don’t measure up somehow because we aren’t “emerging.” I feel a little bit like Jefe in this exchange with El Guapo, his leader, from the movie Three Amigos:
JEFE: I have put many beautiful piñatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.
EL GUAPO: Many pinatas?
JEFE: Oh, yes, many.
EL GUAPO: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?
JEFE: A what?
EL GUAPO: A plethora.
JEFE: Oh, yes, you have a plethora.
EL GUAPO: Jefe, what is a “plethora”?
EL GUAPO: You told me I have a plethora and I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora and find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.
JEFE: Forgive me, El Guapo.
If the people who built the railroads in the United States were actually interested in transporting people, they would now own the airlines.
What I hear when I read those words is the railroads are antiques at best and useless at worst. If I translate the metaphor to apply to the church, which it was intended to do, I go to a railroad church that doesn’t get it and has lived out it’s usefulness. We need to learn how to fly if we expect God to do anything in and with us. While we’re looking out the windows of the train, faith is flying overhead.
If we’re going to talk about organic churches, I go to one. My little church began as a neighborhood church in 1735, breaking off from the First Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts (as in First Church, Pilgrims, you get the idea) because they wanted to worship closer to home. From it’s birth it was a community church and it has remained true to that vision. It’s never been a big church, but the community has never been big either. We’re too comfortable being a community church and have a hard time when we talk about growing, and we are church in the truest sense. Maybe the fact that the Northeast is one of the few areas in this country where the trains still play an important role in our transportation is not for nothing.
The problem with the train-plane analogy for me is I don’t think the church has to choose to be one or the other. If you were to drop our church into the middle of Boston or any other big city, we would neither survive nor minister effectively because we would not be an organic expression of faith in those places, just as an edgy, postmodern, urban fellowship would not draw a crowd in our little town for very long. Both expressions of faith and community, along with a plethora of others, are needed if we are going to give voice to the many dimensions of God’s love and grace. I can’t ride the train from here to Singapore and I would be stupid to try and fly the fifteen miles from my house to Quincy. To borrow from another Steve Martin movie, perhaps we would do well to think of planes, trains, and automobiles.
The first place I read the word emerging in relation to the church was in Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity, where he talked about the church in North America having both an existing paradigm and an emerging paradigm. He was clear to say from the beginning that he was not trying to create a dichotomy as much as describe these two genuine expressions of faith as it gets lived out in the church existing alongside of each other. Though his take on the emerging paradigm is not the same as the current emergent movement, his point is still valid. It’s hard to build a community of faith when the founding vision is “at least we’re not those guys.”
One of the other blog conversations I listen in on centers around eating locally grown food as much as possible. One new word I’ve learned is locivore, as in one who eats locally. I wonder if it, too, might be helpful as an ecclesiological metaphor. One thing I do hear in the emergent emphasis on an organic church. For all that can come out of worldwide connections, the power of the church to live out its faith happens locally. The creative paradox of our calling is we will change the world by meeting the needs in front of our face.
I’ll give you a specific example. I think our church would be transformed if we did two small things: moved all our committee meetings to one night of the month and allowed people to serve on only one committee. Those changes would mean we would either involve more people and/or let go of the stuff that no one feels called to do, and create time when we could get together for discipleship and fellowship. Right now, we get together for worship and committee meetings; there’s no time for anything else. If we created the space and time to be together, we would change ourselves, deepen our commitment to Christ and to one another, and have room to dream about how we can reach out to love our community and our world. It would be an organic and evolutionary move.
Would that make us emergent?