I had a conversation recently with someone who is a leader in a local mainline denomination. She asked what “emerging church concepts” could be used to help envigorate her congregation.
I replied that I didn’t believe that there are any ‘concepts’ that the emerging church could claim to have innovated. In fact, I think the suggestion might be contradictory to the whole idea of ’emergence’. It’s not that there is a single source of new information about doing church or envisioning theology or investigating doctrine….it’s more along the lines of sharing struggles, concerns and success stories with other members of the greater Church. And in this process letting Jesus take the lead.
So, if a paradigm is not working, rather than continue to work harder at it because it always worked in the past, we might instead take a look at what some other churches are doing well. Or even what some traditions may have done in the more distant past (before the Enlightenment)
For example; in my faith community (even though we consider ourselves to be progressively minded) we have begun to realize that we do children’s Sunday school pretty much the same way every one else is doing it. Not that there is anything really wrong with that model, but if we are willing to explore new ways of helping people relate to God (things that may work better in 21st century suburbia than they did in small town America circa 1950) then why aren’t we just as interested in investing that same effort with our children? Is it because we expect children to be bored with Bible lessons anyway but if we throw enough scripture at them something just might stick? Are we really helping children and young people to become atttracted to Jesus Christ? Or do we resign ourselves to adding another dry course to their already overburdened school load, turning the Bible into just another text book. Children are so different from one another and very rarely do they relate to things in the same way. It’s not much different for adults.
Further along in ‘The World’s Religions’ by Huston Smith I came across something that helped me to articulate to my friend what the idea of emergence is like. Smith gives a Buddhist analogy for describing how the different streams of that religion help different people find their ways to God;
It is like we are all on one side of a river, the wrong side, the side that is apart from God (enlightenment). On this side we are consumed by the conventional wisdom of the culture, obsessed with ourselves and insensitive to the other. On the other side lies enlightenment, the Way. Each faith tradition is much like a raft designed to help people journey across that river to the side where he or she will find God and comfortably live with Him. But once we get to the other side we should no longer hold onto an undue attraction for the raft that helped get us there.
I am not suggesting that the raft (or the tradition) should be abandoned but at some point, if it has done it’s job well, it need not be the focus of our communion with God. We now are able to walk freely among other settlers of this land, exploring it as we continue to grow on our journey with God, sharing our joys with our brothers and sisters. It is not productive to worry ourselves over how each of our ‘rafts’ were built, other than in exploring new ways to build better (or improve existing) rafts for crossing the river, in hope that those left on the other side may be enticed into following.
Jesus enticed us into following, and he did so not through the offices of church or religion. It’s almost as if he left the raft itself, swimming freely, almost effortlessly, not against the current but somehow reversing the river’s flow. Janice in Great Expectations puts it this way:
“Yes, He upset the status quo, yes He ‘subverted the empire’, yes, He challenged just about everything the culture AND the community of faith thought and did, and yet ~ He did it with integrity. He didn’t sink to the level of those around Him, He rose above. He took the higher ground. The higher ground of REAL love. And I wonder at my fellow travelers (and myself) and if we are searching for that higher ground, if we are really acting in love, or if there is something else driving us. Jesus sets the bar really high and some days I am appalled by how far I am from reflecting His image. But that is my calling ~ To follow in His way. The way of loving the unlovely, caring for the less than desirable, speaking up against injustices and doing it all in REAL love. Perfect love and with integrity.”
In many ways I think the ’emergent movement’ is just a new label for the older ‘ecumenical movement’. Yet it seems that some people held a view of spiritual tolerance long before the Christian church split into so many different ways of relating towards God.