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Home >The Emerging Church: Ancient Faith for a Postmodern World by Marcia Ford

The Emerging Church
The Emerging Church: Ancient Faith for a Postmodern World by Marcia Ford

CBA International, the annual convention and trade show sponsored by the Christian Booksellers Association, is the kind of event where you need a name badge to enter the trade show area, and you rely heavily on those badges to remind you who these people are that you see only once a year. At least, I do.

Off the trade floor, I pretty much smile at every familiar face as my brain scrambles to match a name with the image. This year’s event, held in late June in Atlanta, proved to be no exception. One morning as I walked through a hotel lobby, I spotted a badge-free person with a particularly familiar face and smiled in a most cheerful manner, stopping just short of saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” The familiar face, as it turned out, belonged to Chuck Norris.

I tell that story for three reasons: 1) it’s a good story; 2) I’m hoping the search engines will draw Chuck Norris fans to this site; and 3) it underscores the fact that you never know who will show up at CBA. Norris was there promoting his autobiography, Against All Odds, which releases in September. Last year, Mel Gibson made an appearance, for obvious reasons.

Though I attend the event as a journalist—or in a good year, as an author—I also identify with evangelical Christianity, a diverse segment of the church that adheres to certain essentials, such as belief in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus. Though the distinction is often difficult for outsiders to recognize, evangelicals are not the same as fundamentalists, who apply a literal interpretation to the Bible, sometimes demand that church members use the King James Version only, and dictate stringent lifestyle rules on matters like dress and entertainment. The evangelical segment enjoys greater latitude when it comes to belief and greater freedom in lifestyle choices.

Even so, I am among those who have grown increasingly disenchanted with evangelicalism. Don’t get me wrong—I could sign, and have signed, any basic statement of faith issued by most evangelical ministries and companies. It’s not a problem of doctrine; it’s a problem of practice. And that problem is often evident at CBA International, where evangelical practices can sometimes appear to be, well, odd.

This year, I asked a fellow Episcopalian, a book editor who could have easily sat out the event, why he bothered to attend. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I love CBA—it’s so bizarre!” Amen to that. Display cases in the lobby of the Georgia World Congress Center, where the event was held, exhibited such items as Actual Brimstone from Sodom and Gomorrah and canvas sandals featuring an embroidered scripture reference and American flag, for those who feel the need to wear their faith and their patriotism on their feet. More than a few groups of journalists hold annual contests to see who can come up with the best example of “Jesus junk” from the trade floor.

All that aside, I returned home from CBA feeling more hopeful than I have in years past, thanks to the postmodern-friendly movement known as the “emerging church.” Since the 1990s, leaders and authors in the movement have made their influence felt at CBA, but never as much as they did this year. In fact, their influence extended to USA Today, CNN, MTV, and other secular media outlets that gave them ink and airtime before, during, and after the convention.

Bear with me now as I engage in a bit of keyboard stammering, because this is the point where I need to define the emerging church. I’ll start by explaining what it is not: It’s not an organization, a denomination, or an association of churches; that kind of structure runs counter to the thinking of its adherents. (Even the word “adherents” is suspect, but let’s not get sidetracked.) It’s not an entity with a single doctrinal stance, though most in the movement could, like me, sign any standard evangelical statement of faith. It’s not—thank God!—another regimented program for the church to follow. And although it emerged as a reaction to church as usual, its leaders take care not to criticize or disparage people who are quite content with the usual church.

What the emerging church offers and encourages is a new way of doing church and being the church, one that resonates not only with the 18-to-34-year-old demographic—the first fully postmodern generation—but also with people who think like those in the younger demographic but are older in age. Or way older, like me. If you came to faith in Christ during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s as I did, you should readily understand the emerging church. Remember how we tried to create a whole new model based on Luke’s description of the early church in the book of Acts? Well, the emerging church is succeeding where we failed, for reasons I can only speculate about. Sometimes I think we just gave up too soon. We ended up with some decent alternatives for that time (think Vineyard Fellowship and Calvary Chapel), but that’s not what we really wanted. What we really wanted then is what they’re actually doing now.

So where can you find examples of the emerging church? Some postmodern-friendly churches have sprung from an intentional and interdenominational effort, such as Brian McLaren’s Cedar Ridge Community Church near Washington, D.C. Pretty much everyone in the emerging church recognizes McLaren as the movement’s elder statesman; his books, with titles like A New Kind of Christian and Adventures in Missing the Point (the latter with Tony Campolo), have helped define the emerging church.

Sometimes, the name of a particular church is a dead giveaway that it’s part of the movement, such as Scum of the Earth in Denver. Little question that it’s not, say, a Southern Baptist congregation. Many, like Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, which meets in a living room setting in an industrial building, see themselves as an experimental community. Still others aren’t really churches but ministries affiliated with traditional congregations, like The Crucible, a postmodern outreach of the huge Belmont Church in Nashville. Vintage Faith in Santa Cruz, California, Apex in Las Vegas, and Holy Joe’s in London are but a few others.

What all these groups have in common is this: They believe Jesus intended his followers to interact with the culture around them, not become an alien subculture. They adhere to the ancient creeds of the church. They emphasize the visual and performing arts and acknowledge the enormous influence pop culture has on society. As much as anything else, they believe in the communal and missional aspects of the church—the responsibility Jesus-followers have to each other and to those outside the faith. And they believe that as we draw closer to God, we draw closer to each other, despite the denominational boundaries that divide us. Emerging church evangelicals comfortably draw on the rich traditions and practices of the diverse streams of Christianity, believing that by genuinely living where our common faith intersects, we can surpass the efforts of even the most successful ecumenical programs.

Beyond that, there’s not always uniformity among the beliefs and practices in the emerging church, and its adherents would have it no other way. They believe faith is a journey rather than a destination, and each community of Christians needs to find its own way of continuing on that journey. Underscoring that idea are books like Doug Pagitt’s Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church—in this case, Solomon’s Porch. Like other leaders in the movement, Pagitt’s intention is to bring readers along on one church’s journey, not provide a rigid model for others to follow.

Among the many authors to pay attention to are Vintage Faith pastor Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship; Drew University professor Leonard Sweet (Postmodern Pilgrims; A Is for Abductive); youth pastor Tony Jones (Postmodern Youth Ministry; Read, Think, Pray, Live); Robert E. Webber, author of The Younger Evangelicals and Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World; Spencer Burke, Sally Morgenthaler—the list is far too extensive to include all the recommended authors here. For the most thorough collection of postmodern resources that I know of, go to www.agts.edu, click on “Free Resources,” and then click on the folder labeled “Emerging Culture/Emerging Church.” That will give you access to a PDF file of 1,700-plus resources amassed by Assemblies of God professor Earl Creps, a man for whom many in the emerging church movement give thanks daily.

As you discover more books and authors, you’ll see that the movement receives strong support from several publishing houses—Zondervan, particularly its emergentYS imprint; Relevant Books; Jossey-Bass; NavPress; and to some extent, Thomas Nelson, Baker Books, and Paraclete Press. Some of those publishers sponsored emerging church events at CBA, including a Zondervan/Relevant panel discussion designed to help booksellers discover what they need to do to reach the postmodern demographic.

Web sites to visit include www.emergentvillage.com and www.theooze.com, both of which provide links to partner ministries. Or simply enter “emerging church” into a good search engine like Google; once you start seeking information on the movement, you’ll discover that there’s a wealth of information available on the Internet. Enter the same term into the Amazon search function (on the main Christianity page, to narrow your choices), and you’ll find numerous books on postmodern ministry.

The emerging church is clearly in its infancy, with some leaders suggesting that it’s in the earliest stages of what could prove to be a 100-year-plus shift in our thinking about church. But no matter where it is on an unknown timeline, it’s a welcome relief for those of us who have longed for evangelicalism to become what we hoped and prayed and believed it could be—an authentic expression of our “ancient-future” faith.

Copyright ©2004 Marcia Ford

Suggested Links
Today's Church in America, Part II by Phyllis Tickle
Dan Brown's Gift to the Church
The Passion of the Christ
Do I have to go to church to worship God?
Other writings by Marcia Ford
The Jesus Creed Blog by Scot McKnight
(Exploring the Significance of Jesus and the Orthodox Faith for the 21st Century)


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