Monday, October 05, 2009
Methodist Lessons for the Emerging Church
I'm currently in a class on the history of Methodism. It's really fascinating, especially these past few weeks as we've looked in-depth at the life and ministry of John Wesley and the beginnings and growth of the Methodist Revival. Basically Methodism started as a renewal movement within the Church of England, John and his brother Charles never intended to start their own sect or denomination. They simply wanted to revitalize faith within the existing church. To do this John spent his time traveling the length and breadth of England, preaching to crowds in churches and fields, and, out of this, starting hundreds of "societies" (what we would call small groups) whose purpose was to encourage those who responded to his revival messages to continue deepening in their faith and practice of the Christian life. Of course Wesley wasn't the sole originator of the Methodist revival. There were dozens of popular preachers traveling throughout England (and the American colonies) at this time who were called by the name Methodist, some of whom were connected with John's efforts, and many others who disagreed with him on various points and were doing their own thing separate from John. In fact, often "Methodist" societies would spring up independently in various places, and John or Charles would come along after the fact and offer to connect them into their larger group of "United Societies". Eventually this movement grew too large and was forced to separate into a new denomination, but that in itself is a testimony of sorts to the success of the Wesleys in bringing about the change they wanted to see in the church.

As I read about Wesley's life and the beginnings of the Methodist movement, I couldn't help but be struck by the many parallels with the emerging church movement in our own day. While the theology and emphases are somewhat different, in terms of methods and organization, it's very similar. The emerging church is not a centralized movement, rather it is a kind of "revival" or "renewal" that is popping up all over the place, in lots of different contexts and for lots of different reasons - sometimes within the existing church, and sometimes as new church plants or separate groups. Of course there are a few well-known speakers, authors, and influencers who work to draw people into the movement, but no one person who is the sole head or leader in any sense. And like the early Methodists, there are lots of little emerging groups (e.g. cohorts, churches) that are popping up everywhere, sometimes in connection with network like Emergent Village, and sometimes completely on their own. These groups are diverse in their emphases and particular interests, but they are united in their desire to see the church "emerge" into something new and wonderful.

I won't hide the fact that I would like to see the emerging church actually grow as a movement, and even take on more deliberate shape and structure. Like the Wesleys, I'm not at all interested in seeing it become a new denomination separate from all the others, but at the same time, I'm not with those who want to keep it so nebulous and unstructured that we can never really make a lasting impact on the broader church. Call me crazy, but I actually believe in the message and values of the emerging church, and I believe that the things we are talking about and discovering together about theology, about worship, about the church, and all the rest, are important and needed in the whole body of Christ. I want to see us make a difference. I want to see real change happen in both the church and in the world. I'm not content to do our own little thing, to be exclusive or unengaged with the rest of the church. I want to see this movement grow, to become more connected with one another, and to begin uniting around a core set of identifiable passions and values that we want to share with the rest of the church.

I think Wesley has some things to teach us about how to do this. In my opinion, there were two main things that he did which gave the Methodists the push they needed to go beyond a nebulous and momentary revival, to a full-fledged movement with lasting results. First, he traveled and, by his physical presence, connected the diverse societies into something larger than themselves. This is something that I think is desperately needed currently, among the many, various "emerging-ish" churches out there certainly, but most especially among all the cohorts currently affiliated with Emergent Village. In my experience cohorts are a vital part of the emerging conversation - they're where local, face-to-face community happens, where new and challenging ideas can be worked out in a safe environment, and where these new ideas can then be carried out to the various established churches (and other spheres of life) represented in a cohort to produce real fruit for the kingdom of God.

Pesonally, I've been working on the Cohorts Team of Emergent Village for the past few years, and in that time I've received literally scores of requests for new cohorts all over the country, and helped many of those get off the ground by encouraging and advising folks (usually via email) on how to do that. However, I've also seen a lot of cohorts or attempted cohorts fizzle and die for lack of a clear sense of purpose, connection or direction, and a lack of continued support, encouragement, and equipping by folks like myself who are just too busy to act as consistent liason for Emergent Village. To put it shortly, what I think we need is a John Wesley type who could dedicate himself or herself to multiplying, growing, equipping and encouraging these cohort groups. More than that, an Emergent John Wesley could help connect each of these scattered "societies" into something larger than themselves, help them not feel so alone or overwhelmed - and to help give them a purpose of reform and renewal in the larger Body of Christ that would go beyond simply deconstructing and complaining about what is wrong with the existing church. I intend to write a follow-up post soon outlining even more specifically what I think an Emergent John Wesley job description would entail.

The second major thing Wesley did to build the Methodist movement was to put a lot of effort into writing and defining what the core theology and beliefs of Methodists were all about, and then disseminating this to the various preachers and leaders of the societies. Frankly, I think something like this is also needed currently in the emerging church. Now I know emergents, by definition, shy away from anything like a "statement of faith", and that's as it should be, IMHO. Part of the point of the emerging conversation is that we are learning and growing together regardless of any theological differences. However, the flip-side of this openness is that we can tend to lack any sense of cohesion or common purpose. What is it that makes one "emergent", and what's the point anyway? What's our message, what are we hoping to accomplish? I've given some thought to this (and, again, I hope to write a follow-up post outlining this in more detail), and I think it is possible to identify a few unifying aspects of the emerging movement that nonetheless don't limit or exclude the diversity among us. In good evangelical fashion I've boiled them down to three, semi-alliterated points:

  1. Kingdom: by this I mean a commitment to working on behalf of Christ and his Kingdom in this world (in all the various forms this can take). This would include terms like "missional" and "social justice", as well as "evangelism". Bottom line, is that I think all emergent folks are united by a passion to work for the good of the world on behalf of God. I think this can be a driving purpose of our efforts without unnecessarily narrowing or limiting the emerging movement in a way that excludes any who want to be a part of it.

  2. Convergence: rather than being sectarian, or claiming (as most other reform movements have done in the past) that we alone finally have figured out the right way to be Christians and do church, the emerging conversation is described by what many have called a deep ecclesiology - a commitment to honor and serve and learn from the church in all her forms. As Doug Pagitt put it once, we don't want to define ourselves by what we're are not. Rather, we want to define ourselves by what we're kinda like - Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Anglican, Pentecostal, Reformed, Evangelical, Liberal, whatever. While we have critiques of all of these, we also embrace all of these as well. We're not an opposition movement, we're an inclusion and renewal movement.

  3. Conversation: by this I mean the relational aspect of this movement - we are bound together, despite (and really, in celebration of) any differences, by a simple commitment to be in relationship with one another. The emerging church is a safe place, a place to ask the questions, to explore theology, try new practices, and pursue God in both new and ancient ways without fear of condemnation or exclusion. The only requirement is that you have to likewise be willing to extend this safety and respect to others yourself. That doesn't mean we minimize or cover over our differences, quite the contrary, we celebrate and learn from them. All it means is that no matter our differences, love wins.

(Incidentally, these parallel the four Values of Emergent Village, though I've included both number 1 and 3 in my first point.)

What I would like to see is the cohorts and churches associated with the emerging movement become more explicit and vocal about these three defining characteristics (or some variation of them) as a defining statement of what we're all about. I'd like to see these (or something like them) become the unifying and driving force behind everything we're trying to accomplish - something to give shape and purpose to the movement, without thereby limiting it or excluding others. Personally I think these three are broad and inclusive enough (and yet also specific enough) to fulfill this goal. I think these are what we need to working towards as we seek to renew and reform the existing church. Just as Wesley intended the Methodists to be an inclusive movement that would bless the whole church, the emerging church needs to likewise unite around a few core values that we want to offer as a gift to the whole Body of Christ.

Of course all of this is just in my personal opinion. What do the rest of y'all think?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:12 AM | Permalink |


12 Comments:


At 10/05/2009 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous Debbie

Sounds great to me! I began pastoring an emergent worship community last March. At first, I was relieved simply to be out of the institutonal church and free to minister in peace for a change. Now I find myself longing for a sense of connection to something greater than my own little experiment, because I'm well aware that there is a larger movement of the Spirit of which my small community is a merely a part. BUT, at the same time, I don't want to lose the freedom and diversity of our individual communities, so the general principles you outline work for me. Something about the way you phrased them also appeals to me more than the EV version, though I can't say why.

Incidentally, I was describing my worship community to a UMC minister friend, and he commented that it reminded him of a Wesley group. There's some confirmation for you.

 

At 10/05/2009 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Something about the way you phrased them also appeals to me more than the EV version, though I can't say why."

Must be the alliteration. ;)

 

At 10/05/2009 01:06:00 PM, Anonymous Danny

I don't think this is something you have to "do." I don't mean that emergents shouldn't think about who they are and what they are about, but that the movement from "experiment" to "definition" happens naturally over time.

I think of the example of google products such as gmail and google labs. All of these products start off, more or less, as experiments. The latest one, google wave, is still very much in its fluid form and will undergo many changes before the "final product." But the functions of the programs become more defined over time and gain many more "functions" (such as tags in gmail, google chat, gmail video chat, and sms chat), and soon it becomes its own "institution."

But there are always things trying to undermine the institution. To use the example of google, google wave seems like something that will make us rethink how we use gmail. It will probably outdate the "old" model, and we will begin the institutionalization of the "new" wave model.

The emergent church is a kind of "beta" program of the church. Not everyone yet knows what to do with it, but the institutionalization will happen and our children will have new ideas and new forms of the way they want to do church.

We can only live in our moment now and keep playing in the sandbox God has given us.

 

At 10/05/2009 02:42:00 PM, Anonymous Debbie

I've been thinking about the process of emergence in biological terms lately. For example, I found a Monarch butterfly caterpillar during my morning walk last week. It was ready to pupate, but its natural habitat had just been mown down by the city maintenance folk. It was also sluggish from the unseasonably cool weather and about to cross four lanes of brisk traffic. So I took the caterpillar home and put it in an suitable container to do its thing safely. When it emerges from the chrysalis in a couple of weeks, I'll release it. Then it will pump up its beautiful wings and fly away.

Now, countless caterpillars become butterflies every year without my assistance. Moreover, I did not need to explain to the caterpillar what it was supposed to do or become. Those things come naturally to caterpillars. For this particular pre-butterfly, though, a little assistance at the critical moment in its journey and a safe space to change/emerge probably made the difference between completing its metamorphosis (and living to reproduce the next generation) or becoming a disgusting splat on Kanawha Boulevard.

I believe Danny is right that the emergent movement will become whatever it is meant to be and that the form will become clear to us in time. What I believe Mike is suggesting (if I'm understanding correctly and not just reading my own needs into his post), is analogous to the assistance I gave the caterpillar to make sure it had the chance to complete its journey and reproduce.

 

At 10/05/2009 02:51:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Perhaps counterintuitively, I could almost sign on to those three points (though as an atheist, I'd need to revise the first one a bit.) However, I see a potential contradiction between the latter two and this:

I won't hide the fact that I would like to see the emerging church actually grow as a movement, and even take on more deliberate shape and structure. Like the Wesleys, I'm not at all interested in seeing it become a new denomination separate from all the others, but at the same time, I'm not with those who want to keep it so nebulous and unstructured that we can never really make a lasting impact on the broader church.

My life-philosophy is centered around the effect of the unstructured and on how individual actors can create a gestalt-society through the cumulative effects of their actions (Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is one example). As such, I wouldn't agree that something nebulous and "unstructured" can't have a lasting impact; indeed, while there is sometimes a crisis which crystalizes the preceding zeitgeist (such as the penning of the U.S. constitution reflecting developments in European philosophy in the period 1688-on), the real work was done not by the formalization but by the unstructured and often chaotic period leading up to the formalization. (And, to misinterpret the word, anyone who's ever looked at astronomical photographs knows that nebulae have quite a bit of structure, in a certain sense.)

Furthermore, the formalization is downright destructive to liberalism, as it defines a new conservatism. (For example, it's hard to imagine slavery would have lasted as long as it did if it hadn't been codified in the U.S. constitution.) To be nebulous is to welcome new ideas; centrally-imposed structure is necessarily both sectarian and hostile to certain forms of conversation.

 

At 10/05/2009 08:55:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Danny - for things to "happen naturally", people still have to actually be doing something. If we all just sat on our asses and waited around for things to "develop naturally", nothing would happen at all. (Even at google, someone has to actually create those new apps, other people have to test them and refine them, etc.) That's what I'm talking about - about doing something to move things to the next stage. On the macro-level, yes, things "develop naturally", but on the micro-level, the level where cohorts and individual people operate, things happen because people like you and me actually do stuff.

Miko - I highly doubt that the very, very minimal level of "structure" I'm talking about would be at all destructive or hostile to further conversation. I'm not talking about starting an institution, or codifying a system of beliefs. My three descriptors were deliberately crafted to avoid precisely that. All I'm talking about is helping cohorts multiply and become more connected and less isolated from one another, and about trying to give some substance to what the emerging "gestalt" even is. If we can't put any descriptors on it, period (even one's as broad and inclusive as mine), then is it really anything at all?

At any rate, like I said to Danny, given the choice between doing something or doing nothing, and instead just waiting around for some "invisible hand" to make things happen, I'd rather do something, anything, to help the process along. There's too many problems in this world, and I'm too committed to the kingdom of God to be scared off by the fear of doing too much.

 

At 10/07/2009 07:31:00 AM, Blogger donheatley

Good points, Mike. Now if only we could get the United Methodist church to be more like Wesley.

 

At 10/07/2009 03:38:00 PM, Blogger alan

Great post Mike. I'm the husband of a UM pastor and we often comment that Wesley wasn't far off from being Emergent -- at least in his day.

But of course, as the last post alluded, the average Methodist sitting in the average pew in the average small church in 2009 is far-removed from the "Spirit of the Wesleys." But if you really followed and tried to live out what we advocate in our "Book of Discipline" then you'd be pretty close to Emergent -- as close as any mainline theology gets maybe?

And of course Wesley isn't unique as a reformer. So many times, the person(s) don't want to start a new denomination, they simply want to see reform in the church. (Stll going on today!) But change is so bitterly resisted sometimes that in order to be faithful to the Spirit's leading you feel that you have no choice but to go "outside the doors of the church" to get done what needs doing...

Some of that is probably happening now in many of our churches. People leave to start something new, because it was impossible in the "old" confined setting. What I call "the inertia of how we've always done it" can sometimes be very hard to overcome.

Other times, groups that favor change try to form "church within a church." They try and work around the resistance. That is what has happened, with some degree of success, at the small church my wife pastors. We aren't growing explosively, but we have started some new things and most newcomers we do get end up liking the new things we're doing to try and make what we do "more accessible" to a wider audience -- particulary youth and young adults.

I hope John & Charles would approve. :)

 

At 10/07/2009 06:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

I'm sorry Mike, but I don't see it working. I'd like to see it work; I love the analogy to the butterfly along with what's going on in Alan's church, but I fear that any attempt to encourage any structure will be met with hostility. The small guidelines may be for the best (I think they would) but it won't fly with the average emergent. At least, not with the emergents of my experience.

Let me focus on just the third point you offer: Conversation.
...we are bound together, despite (and really, in celebration of) any differences, by a simple commitment to be in relationship with one another. The emerging church is a safe place, a place to ask the questions, to explore theology, try new practices, and pursue God in both new and ancient ways without fear of condemnation or exclusion. The only requirement is that you have to likewise be willing to extend this safety and respect to others yourself. That doesn't mean we minimize or cover over our differences, quite the contrary, we celebrate and learn from them. All it means is that no matter our differences, love wins.

Not a chance. Over the last few years I've tried any number of times to gently engage and ask questions on a variety of on-line emergent forums. As soon as it is discovered that I'm still attending a mainline church I get flamed. My thoughts and questions haven't fit in, thus I get hung out to dry in my asbestos suit. My experience in these conversations is that most folks are open and accepting, as long as you agree with them; otherwise you're an idiot. Asking the average person identifying themselves as emergent to lovingly play nice instead of defending their turf won't be easy. (I keep coming back though because I feel in my heart that God is calling me to grow, broaden, and be his hands/feet/voice in ways far beyond what I've experienced thus far. It's like, I want to emerge and grow, but since I don't sing the correct party lines yet I'm not allowed into the club. Yes, I've used a variety of pseudonyms through time. That's why I feel the need to stay anonymous now.)

If this is the "safe place" shown toward someone who has merely been seeking to learn, how much more will you be shot down for asking people to play by a set of rules?

I still love and respect you brother, and will continue reading what I can. I just hate to think of you getting the vilification that I fear might come your way.

 

At 10/07/2009 08:23:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Nony Mouse -

Thanks for sharing your concerns and experiences. You said,

"Over the last few years I've tried any number of times to gently engage and ask questions on a variety of on-line emergent forums. As soon as it is discovered that I'm still attending a mainline church I get flamed. My thoughts and questions haven't fit in, thus I get hung out to dry in my asbestos suit."

I've had similar experiences myself at a lot of so-called "emergent" sites. Could it perhaps be that the problem is not so much that they are emergent websites per se, as that they are simply websites, period? What I mean, is that the web is not a particular conducive format for creating "safe space". When I wrote that in my post, I really did have in mind real, face-to-face communities like cohorts and churches. In those contexts my experiences with differences and diversity of opinions have been much, much more positive than what I've experienced online. Frankly, as much as I've benefited personally from online debates and discussions (I don't really mind a little heated disagreement now and then), the kind of safe-space that I was talking about is something that I think mainly has to happen in more immediate, tangible relationships. That's where I think the emerging church is at its strongest, which is why I'm still so passionate about multiplying and growing cohorts.

And of course, nothing is going to be perfect. We're all still sinners in need of grace, so while "safe space" is the ideal that I think most of us in the emerging conversation are striving for, the degree to which we actually achieve that in any given setting will of course vary. The only solution I see is for all of us involved in the conversation, you and me included, to just keep on trying to do better (instead of just throwing in the towel and refusing to try at all).

 

At 10/08/2009 08:35:00 AM, Anonymous Debbie

Anonymous,

So far I've not had any negative experiences. However, as a fellow post-mainline emergent, I, too, have found that many of my questions and concerns are different from those of post-evangelicals. Mike very kindly directed me to some mainline emergent sites, so now my virtual ears are happily taking in both conversations.

P.S. The butterfly-to-be is still doing well. Thanks for appreciating the analogy.

 

At 10/08/2009 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Eric Sauter

Hi Mike et al,

I stumbled here from the Mclaren post where he makes comment, and couldn't help but be struck by the comment from Anonymous...

Dear Anonymous,
Having been where it sounds like you are, and being a seeking person who happens to still be in a main line church, I feel your pain. I won't pretend to know exactly what you're experiencing, but let me share a little of my story & struggle.

I like your reference to an asbestos suit - very apt. Not to nit-pick, but were you talking to post-moderns in general or to "emergents" in particular? I ask because there are a couple places out there that, while under the general heading of Christion post-modern, more fit into the category of "Reconstructionists" as outlined elsewhere. Again, I shouldn't be picky or name names, but I personally got shredded on the Ooze.

Keep earnestly seeking what God is trying to teach you. It can com from many places and in many forms and may not be wrapped up in a conventionally christian package. It could come from a conservative pulpit, or from a street beggar praising God in all circumstances. It could come from James Dobson at one end, or my good friend Tim Wolf at Straight-Friendly on the other end. God has promised us that He will be speaking and that we will hear if we are listening. For me, the ongoing problem has been clearing out the noise to allow that "still small voice" to come through.

Hang in there, and don't be slow to ask Him for guidance.

 

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