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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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