What Emergent Isn’t: A Pentecostal Primer

28 03 2008

Momentum is building as plans begin to take shape for a first meet-up of “Emerging Pentecostals,” in Sacramento, California sometime between April 21-23, during the District Council of the Northern California Assemblies of God (whew!). Whether you’re a credentialed minister or not, I’d like to invite anybody reading this in the NorCal/Nev district area to grab every friend who has ever sat down with you over coffee or tea or sushi or whatever other stereotypically postmodern dining experience to talk about the emerging church. It should be fun, informative and if nothing else, memorable.

I was speaking with someone recently who has a lot of experience in the emergent movement, and he shared a sage piece of advice: lay out very clear disclaimers leading up to a first meeting, so as to ensure that the right people are in the right room for the right reasons. This is a tricky endeavor, because while it would seem to some that the ethos of emergent is “anything goes,” there are in fact some basic assumptions that are shared within what has been coined “the conversation.” There are also plenty of misconceptions about emergent: just like the term postmodern, it is ubiquitous and carries different connotations depending on who’s using the term. Maybe a good way to go about this, instead of attempting to describe everything that emergent is (because it is very difficult to nail down), would be to point out what it is not. I hope this is one of the few if not the only time that I write like a know-it-all, because I’m not and I don’t. So here goes:

What Emergent Isn’t: A Pentecostal Primer

Emergent isn’t a marketing strategy for reaching the millennial demographic. I read Brian McLaren recently discussing the idea that changes in methodology reflect, whether intentional or not, changes in ideology. Or to paraphrase Tony Jones in his new book, The New Christians, good practice flows out of good orthodoxy. If you’ve found yourself intrigued or caught up in alternative or ancient worship environments, this conversation will challenge you to dig deeper than the aesthetic changes and into your developing theology.

Emergent isn’t an invitation to trip down the mudslide of moral relativism. This is likely to be a big category because personal piety has played a large role in the holiness movement, of which the Assemblies of God is a tributary. Even though postmodernism is a deconstructionist philosophy, I think it has less to do with moral realitivism (although this is a potential endpoint) than with how language and context generate one’s reality. Postmodernism can’t be held solely responsible for kids having sex or doing drugs. (Guilt-based, formulaic salvation messages that alienate the struggling probably bear at least equal culpability.) In fact, approaching issues of personal conduct and societal unhealth might require us to take a step back from our moralist soapboxes and practice enough humility to listen and understand the complexities of others’ lives instead of treating them like disembodied souls that need saving.

Emergent doesn’t replace the Holy Spirit with New Age-y Pop Psychology. In fact, our expressed corporate reliance on the Holy Spirit for witness and power is in direct alignment with a major structural aspect of the emergent movement. This is related to the moral relativism question, in that the desire for friendship and conversation over and against crusades and altar call moments seems foreign at best and anti-spiritual at worst. However, when one looks through the lens of emergent sensibilities long enough, it becomes apparent that choosing to love people unconditionally, to listen instead of indoctrinate, to wrestle through the complexities and nuances of life in community instead of throwing down the gauntlet of doctrine (or the unwritten law of acceptable behavior) — these are much more risky positions to take as the body of Christ, because it places the impetus squarely on the Holy Spirit to move and reveal himself and form people into the image of Jesus in a subversive fashion. When we simply follow the great command of Jesus: to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are fulfilling the law and the prophets. To trust the Spirit of God to do the rest, the heart work, if you will, seems to be a much more honest position for Pentecostals than the hard-sell altar calls I’ve seen in countless summer camps.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I should point out here that I still believe in the effectiveness of preaching, both in the history of the church and into the future.  The way we preach, however, can (and should, in my opinion) be reflective of the culture we’re speaking into.  Now, more than ever perhaps, this will require us to re-think what it means to preach in the first place. 

Emergent isn’t a new denomination. If anything, it’s more like the AG with respect to our “fellowship” posture and resistance to be identified in denominational terms (although some might argue that we’re on track to becoming one). Emergent crosses the span of denominations, and is influencing Jesus-followers of all doctrinal stripes, as people within the conversation try to figure out how the Gospel of Jesus, inhabited and communicated by the Body of Christ, will manifest in a postmodern world. Some even foresee the end of denominations as we know it, with the rise of open-source collaboratives like Wikipedia.org and Linnux fundamentally changing the way information (and by extension, personal formation) is collected, distributed and consumed. I’d also suggest that even the particularity of “emergent” as a thing is only the latest incarnation of how the Gospel, catalyzed by the Spirit, infects cultures as they rise and fall and morph. This is why, at least for me, it seems completely reasonable to consider how people in fellowship with the Assemblies of God can interact with the emergent conversation while retaining all the unique markings of our tribe.

As I wrap this post up, I realize there are an infinite number of possibilities for the “What it isn’t” column (Emergent isn’t a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich, etc.) but I think I hit some of the big ones. Are there any lingering questions, doubts, concerns, or (to borrow a favorite line from one of my Bible College profs) outright charges of heresy ? Be sure to show some love to the comments section!

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5 responses

29 03 2008
Marvin Miller

Hi John.

So whats the details on emergent conversation among AG people during Norcal District Council? do you have a time, place, after evening session?

thanks.

Marvin Miller

30 03 2008
Anne Grant

Hmm…How much of the literature criticizing the ’emerging church’ movement have you read? Personally, I am not willing to sign off on the emerging movement, though I do relate to some of the things you bring up. For example, you mention those summer camp altar calls. I am finding that being in a place where studying the Bible and listening to solid Bible teaching is transforming my life in surprising ways. It really hasn’t been about the “break though” or going to “the next level.” It’s been a slow process of change, as the Holy Spirit reveals the things I need to change in my life. I agree that we need to listen but we also need to teach the uncompromising truth of God’s Word. Many of these truth are very plain in Scripture but we don’t want to hear it because we don’t want to change! I hope that the guiding force in any authentic Christian community is God’s Word, not the fickle winds of our culture, be it modern, postmodern or whatever.

30 03 2008
johnohara

I totally agree; although I would be careful with how the sword of the Spirit is wielded. Sometimes I think we act more like Peter, slashing around and defending Jesus against those who we perceive as threats to our little kingdoms, while Jesus saves his zeal for those who would keep his sheep from reconciliation with the Father (temple marketers, stone throwers, etc.). My issue isn’t with the Spirit-inspired Word of God, but in how we relate to that living Word and the people the Spirit seeks to set free.

31 03 2008
NonCharon

Hey, I’m actual Episcopal, but spent the better part of my college years in an AG context. I’m living in the Chico area of Northern California, and would welcome contact from any fellow “Emergents”. It would be nice have more voices at the table when my friends and I meet for coffee and conversation. 🙂

5 06 2009
brent browning

I spent two years in an Emergent church, the first with great expectation and the last with mounting disappointment. I attended a seeker sensitive mega-church very similar to Willow Creek during the same time and learned much more about being a Christ follower from the mega chruch than I did from the Emergent. I started to get the picture after attending two Emergent retreats where the most spiritual thing that we did is play a game of Mafia, no other spiritual teaching being offered. I found Emergent to be maddingly nonspecific about specific spiritual questions that I had. After two years in Emergent, I felt God calling me out of it to the Vineyard Church, which I found had many Emergent characteristics along with a clear Biblical statement of faith and belief in the power and work of the Holy Spirit, something that was not up front at all in Emergent.

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