Friday, July 18, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 3

The missional and emerging church movements represent two different ways of doing theology. This is due in part to the location of the leading voices in the movement. The missional church guys are mostly seminary profs, and particularly well represented are missiologists (Guder, Hunsberger, Van Gelder).

Following the work of Lesslie Newbigin in Great Britain, these leaders seated their analysis in theological critique. They were doing ecclesiology and missiology, and these emphases have led also to careful reflection from Trinitarian and eschatological perspectives. They did not begin their reflection primarily as problem solvers within local congregations. They have moved from theological topics to application and are only now beginning to address some of the close issues of congregational life.

The emerging church leaders in the early days were mainly pastors reacting to the close problems of congregational life. They begin their theological reflection with the immediacies presented by a context they define as postmodern. They have moved from situation to more deliberate reflection on theological topics over time.

It is interesting that the herd is already thinning among the emergents as the theology becomes more fully articulated. The missional church leaders have arisen primarily from the mainline ranks, while the emerging church leaders tend to come more from the evangelical side of things. I point this out because many of the emerging church leaders are casting outside the normal waters of traditional evangelical thought, especially when it comes to issues like truth, Scripture, politics, and salvation. Early and prominent leaders have disavowed their association with all things emerging, notably Mars Hill Church (Seattle) pastor Mark Driscol. I made a presentation on missional church recently to a group of pastors that included evangelicals. I made one comment, fairly favorable, about the emerging church movement, and was roundly attacked by a few young evangelical pastors.

Still, having said that, a book like Emerging Manifesto of Hope (I should have included the words "of Hope" when I reported the title in my earlier post, my apologies) is all over the place on some fairly important theological concepts--God, world, church, culture, salvation. And the book is still fairly silent on some big theological themes, e.g. Trinity. A reader still gets the sense that what binds the material together is a commitment to the issues related to postmodernity rather than a set of defining theological commitments.

(I like Doug Pagitt's observation that emergents approach postmodernity in different ways. Some minister to postmoderns. Others with postmoderns. Still others as postmoderns. All of them, though are about whatever is postmodern. And I think the latter two groups are wresting the brand away from the first).

This last observation is not a criticism. I think this is something that the emergent types might even herald as a mark of their movement. And this is a legitimate way to do theology. In fact, one could argue that this is the way most theology has developed historically. The irony might very well be that the emergents are making the case for missional in a more compelling way than their more academically attuned counterparts (and to self-identify, I'm one of those more academically attuned dudes. Although, I'm pretty sure Hunsberger, Guder, et al are not so much dudes. Don't get me wrong, they are dudes as opposed to the other gender. Though Lois Barrett and Inagrace Ditterich are not dudes. Sorry, not the point I was trying to make).

What I mean by this is that the missional church folks are big on emphasizing that mission is the occasion and source for theology. One implication of this claim is that context drives much of the theological agenda. We are always doing theology in light of the need to make sense of the faith in new circumstances. The emergents are hip deep in the new circumstances. They reek of it. (And I mean this in the best possible sense of the word reek).

Having affirmed this approach to doing theology, however, I do think that the sustainability of the emerging church movement will require more deliberate articulation about what they are learning about God's mission in a new context. Otherwise, this will be little more than a thousand dissipated experiments. And this type of articulation will push the need for clarity.

This is already happening from my perspective. A recent essay by Eddie Gibbs (one emergent leader who teaches in a seminary, namely Fuller) begins with the sweet theological strains of Lesslie Newbigin. Brian McLaren's essay in Emerging Manifesto of Hope moves deliberately away from postmodernism as a frame for his critique, and toward what he terms post-colonialism. This produces, in turn, a different set of theological considerations. He is closer here to a missional line of critique.

It is not surprising that these two groups are forming somewhat of a middle ground. The missional leaders value the experience within congregations of the emergents, while the emergents are finding very helpful cover for their experiments within the tracks of the more formally articulated missional theology.


Richard Beck said...

Let me get your take on this:

How does missional square with Yoder's notion of recovering the "visible church"?

Mark Love said...


Two observations. First, the chapter on apostolicity in Missional Church was written by a mennonite and defines "sent" almost exclusively in terms of separateness or contrast. The mennonites have used missional as a brokering concept for a recent denominational merger. They find something about the conversation compelling. Missional does seem able to carry the church as an alternative polis, ala Yoder and Hauerwas.

This, however, is not the only or even predominant use of the word public among missional types. Its more narrow than most would want to define it. Simpson and others are writing a lot about the church as a public companion in civil society. This is very different. The common factor, however, is publicness.

Second, the language of essence show up way too often in the missional literature for my liking. This goes against the notion of a visible church. Again, I think this is not the norm or the direction the conversation is headed. All that to say, public ties missional ecclesiology together in some sense, sometimes with Yoder, sometimes against him.

I've wanted to push on your stuff about community and individual. I think, theologically speaking, you can make the case that you don't have community unless you have a safe place for dissent. You might have a group, but not a community, not a community that can bear witness to God in the world. And while Luther stood singularly, he did not stand isolated or apart from a community, a tradition that informed and made possible both his critique and his courage.And he had a prince in his pocket.



Anonymous said...


Welcome to the blogging world. I think you can offer an interesting and challenging voice to online conversation. I have a few of my own reflections from this brief missional/emergent conversation you've begun.

I came to the missional conversation through connection with Emerging leaders. I appreciate the fact you entitled these entries "Missional and Emergent" rather than "Missional or Emergent" or "VS". That seems to be happening a lot these days.

Second, the emerging leaders I know or have spent time with (Seay, McLaren , and Doug Pagitt just this morning) consistently reference missional leaders like Kiefert, Roxburgh, Newbigin, and others. They are deeply indebted to their work and thinking. In fact, they see themselves as seriously working out missional theology in their churches. ("Working" out rather than "figuring" out, which has both positive and negative consequences.)

A legitimate critique is that emerging views of missional ecclessiology seems to stop at the level of social justice. My limited experience has been that the spiritual formation side is in some degree lacking. Internal church structures are often similar to existing churches just with a post-Christian/post-modern flavor.

I think too much is made of the post-modern discussion. I think perhaps the Emergent and Missional folks are saying some of the same things in this regard; one using "post-Christian" and the other "post-modern" language. As someone who spends much of his time with folks under 40, I think both issues are crucial, and my church has not been served by endless conversations about which one is more true.

You mentioned the "thinning" of the Emergents. This is true. Largely because involvement with Emeregent requires time, effort and conversation. In truth, the Emergent folks would say that there are no emergent churches. There are emerging leaders who lead churches who are experimenting and asking questions. Whether that is true or not one can judge for themselves.

Plus, folks like Mark Driscoll were never really aligned with Pagitt, Jones, and McLaren. "Emergent Manifesto..." reflects a central emergent , AND disagreement. Jones and Pagitt, for whatever reasons, are resistant to ideas like "Statements of Faith" and a book that is a "snapshot of thought" is very appealing to them. Emergent has to be thought of as a big tent of conversation (at least that's what it was originally envisioned to be)

Third, I agree with you that some of the language (Everything Must Change, etc...) can be a little distressing. At B&N, there's a table with "emergent-esqe" books with a large sign reading: "The New Christianity." This, I think, is a little much. Nevertheless, we should be aware that some people within the wide and diverse Emergent community do feel that they are the engineers -- though, they'd never use a word that mechanistic -- of a new kind of Reformation. This impulse, it seems, should be kept in check!

I've written too much and the baby is crying...gotta go!

Mark Love said...


Great stuff. Thanks. As I said in my first post, I'm a newbie to the emergent movement.

I wonder though about this stuff about no emerging churches, only emergent leaders. Does this reflect (my suspicion) a low ecclesiology? It seems to betray the evangelical emphasis on the pastor sometimes at the expense of the church. I'm reminded that other than Volf's work, we have precious little in the way of ecclesiology from evangelicals.



Casey McCollum said...

Thanks for doing this series. I, along with two older C of C guys started the N. Dallas Emergent Cohort and we have been meeting for a few months with some GREAT conversation and a very ecumenical group. I've been reading Mclaren since undergrad and Tony and Doug for a while now. (I just saw their "Church Basement Roadshow" and it was excellent.)
I do have a question for you - any idea on how much of Emergent is on the academy's radar? I saw Flanders doing a class on Emergent but what about other schools? Just curious.