Two terms have played an important role for me in discussing the church. The first term was important for me during the season in which we experimented with house churches. It was during that time that I realized I was swimming in the Emerging Church conversation. The “emerging church” was a term primarily coined by young church leaders who had grown up in the Evangelical Church movement of the late twentieth century and were starting to question some key tenets of the Christian faith in light of the postmodern awareness of the truly global and pluralistic nature of reality. The term caught traction with many other traditions and soon people were “emerging” from all the Christian denominations into some form of postmodern reformation movement.
When the house church we started died a painful death, my excitement over the term emergent partially died with it. This is partly due to the fact that I had been accused of being either demon possessed or a moral relativist because I was reading and conversing within the emerging conversation. It was also partly due to the fact that I was simply exhausted from ministry and cocooned from all theological terms and went into a ministry coma for three years.
The second term that has been important for me is Missional. This term appeared on my radar screen after I woke up from the ministry coma and found myself inside the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Luther Seminary. I discovered that the term Missional was first coined by traditionally mainline theologians and missiologists who realized, in the late 1980s, that the church in the Western tradition had become coopted by Western Imperialism and colonization and needed to be reimagined. We must no longer see the Western Church and Christendom as the center of the universe that sends out missionaries to the rest of the world with the mission to convert them to our enculturated form of Christianity. Rather, God has a mission in this world to redeem God’s good creation and make all things new. This mission has a church. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, works in every culture, from the inside out, to bring about God’s preferred and promised future. The work of the church is to discern what God is doing in every place and join God in that work.
The term Missional has become muddy in recent years. There was never a completely unanimous definition of the term. The debate has always been divided between those who see God as more “outside” or “above” creation who sends the church into the world, on the one side, and those who see God’s work “inside” or “under” all of creation and human systems, where we are supposed to discern what God is doing. Some, in recent years, have adopted the term Missional as the latest buzz word for the latest iteration of “culturally relevant” attractional church ministry. This has, in my opinion, diluted the helpfulness of the term.
I raise the issue today because Richard Rohr is currently devoting his daily meditations to the Emerging Church. I read Rohr’s meditation almost every day and I find that I resonate with them at almost every turn. I especially loved today’s meditation, so I will quote it here,
Practical, practice-based Christianity has been avoided, denied, minimized, ignored, delayed, and sidelined for too many centuries, by too many Christians who were never told Christianity was anything more than a belonging or belief system. Now we know that there is no Methodist or Catholic way of loving. There is no Orthodox or Presbyterian way of living a simple and nonviolent life. There is no Lutheran or Evangelical way of showing mercy. There is no Baptist or Episcopalian way of visiting the imprisoned. If there is, we are invariably emphasizing the accidentals, which distract us from the very “marrow of the Gospel,” as St. Francis called it. We have made this mistake for too long. We cannot keep avoiding what Jesus actually emphasized and mandated. In this most urgent time, “it is the very love of Christ that now urges us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Quaker pastor Philip Gulley superbly summarizes how we must rebuild spirituality from the bottom up in his book, If the Church Were Christian.  Here I take the liberty of using my own words to restate his message, which offers a rather excellent description of Emerging Christianity:
- Jesus is a model for living more than an object of worship.
- Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.
- The work of reconciliation should be valued over making judgments.
- Gracious behavior is more important than right belief.
- Inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers.
- Encouraging the personal search is more important than group uniformity.
- Meeting actual needs is more important than maintaining institutions.
- Peacemaking is more important than power.
- We should care more about love and less about sex.
- Life in this world is more important than the afterlife (eternity is God’s work anyway).
If this makes sense to you, you are already inside of Emerging Christianity.
I currently find myself serving as a pastor in a suburban ELCA church that strives to be Missional within our context. Rohr’s meditation has reminded me that I am still also very emergent. That is why I continually remind people that I am “barely Lutheran.”
So, what do you think? Should we talk about being emergent, Missional, or something else?