See also An Emerging Glossary by Jay Gamelin
A campus pastor describes features of the church that are emerging as a new era of leaders engage questions of faith and culture.
As a young seminarian, I remember reflecting on my experience of Christ, the ways in which I sensed the awe of God in the daily life and struggle of faith. I was gifted with moments where God seemed to be made visible to me, incarnational moments with campers while a counselor, on retreats as a youth, in conversations during late nights with my wife and around the pub table with friends. I noted how these experiences were further "fleshed out" through study and reading, and prayer and worship in college and seminary, but the experiences themselves remained the bedrock on which my faith was being built rather than the intellectual exercises that followed them.
Yet despite all these extra-ecclesial encounters with God, I often thought (or was implicitly told) that these were not what we Christians should trust and rely on. Instead, we ought to turn to the institutional bride and all that she brings to guide and nourish us in faith. Or I was led to believe that working out one's faith in fear and trembling means reading difficult books with long titles — rather than daily living out a faithful life.
The relationship I have with God comes so much more frequently in the surprises than on the 'dates' I would call worship.
I was also led to believe, or led myself to believe, that true faith was for the mind and I should not trust my "lying, cheating heart." Instead, I should seek the living face of Christ within the church I called home. My denomination should be my identity.
But then I ask, why then does this experience of the incarnate Christ rarely occur for me within this body of believers I called church? Why do I recall so clearly the stolen moments when God became visible but rarely encounter God in the plans and buildings meant to magnify the Lord? Why does it seem that the relationship I have with God comes so much more frequently in the surprises than on the "dates" I would call worship? Why, when I think of what the church is "supposed to look like," I rarely see the church look that way? Why do we talk about relationships as the cornerstone yet create gatherings where relationships are an afterthought? Why do we beg our parishioners to pray, yet we clergy are always the ones doing it for them? Why do we ask them to talk about Jesus in the world when they can barely do it within the church?
Why does "the church" so frequently not look like "the Church"?
What I was encountering in my own wanderings is a phenomenon of the clashing of culture with ecclesia. For many hundreds of years, we have lived within the embrace of Christendom. That is, the church was often the center of people's social, political, and economic lives. But with the advancement of technology, a burst of information has ushered in a new age — an image age — that has bound the world together not only with words but also with pictures.
This burst of information has shoved us into an era of mystery, an era where we see tragedy and desperation as much as we can talk about them. Today, we are reacting to these stark pictures with our hearts and not just our minds. We are learning to experience life and not just talk about it. We are learning how connected we are as a people. We are learning the great fallacy of pure rational thinking (a kind of hubris that thinks that all questions will be answered) and forget that for every answered question comes a thousand new questions. We are being moved past the comfort of knowing into the mysterious cloud of unknowing.
The previous era said, 'Tell me about the empty tomb.' The new era says, 'Show me an empty tomb.'
This age (an era following the modern era, literally a postmodern era) has brought with it a new set of questions for the church to face. The question of the modern era was "What church do you go to and how is it different from mine?" The new question is, "Do you believe in God?" The previous era inquired, "Tell me about the empty tomb." The new era shouts, "Show me an empty tomb." The previous era of the church defined itself against other churches, a dogmatic and doctrinal delineation. The new era asks how the church will define itself against the culture.
All these new questions articulate what I, in my heart, had been asking earlier in my life. Today, these questions guide my theology, my practice of ministry, my worship, and my reading of Scripture.
New But Old
For men and women raised in this culture, a new way of approaching church began to emerge as many of us entered into positions of leadership. Our past experiences of God and faith seemed curiously similar, despite distance and time. The church that was emerging honored the past, even brought back ancient practices, but used them in new ways. A new kind of "monasticism" began to emerge. People began to gather together in homes as intentional faith communities. Worship services, drawing on practices from earlier times, focused less on intellectual exercises and more on the mysterious movements of the Spirit. Leadership began to utilize current technology, such as video projection, as part of the worship experience.
People were also drawn to new questions about what it looked like to follow Jesus and live the empty tomb through their lives, rather than only talking about an empty tomb that would point us to the next life. These people began to speak about why they believe in God rather than trusting their denomination as a definition of faithfulness. They still draw from history and from their faith traditions; but rather than resting mainly on denominational heritage, they are drawn deeper into the heritage of a living faith.
We are being called again into reformation, to be reminded that our church is about living in an authentic community.
I find myself within a church that is emerging. But this is not by choice or plan. I have not been seeking a new kind of program or churchly criteria. The "emerging church" is not so much about a set a values as it is a culture of men and women responding to a set of questions that many of us in the institutional church do not seem to understand are being asked today.
I find myself drawn into this emerging church not because I need couches and candles to justify worship, but because this church seems to be addressing the questions and life of my generation. This emerging church honors my experience as much as my intellect, and furthermore, makes an effort to draw people into these experiences. This emerging church seems to understand that my faith needs not only the intellect but also the heart, the body, and the eyes and ears — that is, the whole of me — if I am to follow Jesus.
The emerging church is still developing and underway. It is a phenomenon rather than a program. It will continue to shape and shift as the end of one era moves into another. I wonder today what it will look like in 10, 20, even 50 years. But as I was taught, I am thankful for a church that is always reforming. Perhaps, as with all church movements, it will die when it comes to the end of its triumph. But for now, I celebrate a church that seeks to answer the questions of my generation.
In conclusion, I must say that the emerging church is not the savior of the church. It brings with it the baggage of disembodied community via the Internet, a demonic cynicism born of pride, a commercial mindset that shuns commitment and responsibility, and a distrust of heritage and deeply held traditional practices. But this generation does bring a real and relevant critique to our Christian culture in the West that church leadership can listen to and learn from.
In essence, we are being called to do more than speak of faith but instead live it, to do more than show up but to be present. We are being called again into reformation, to be reminded that our church is about living in an authentic community dedicated to following Jesus.
Jay Gamelin is campus pastor of Jacob's Porch, an ELCA ministry at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners Online.