Tony Jones, The New Christians; Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 264pp.
In church not long ago a friend asked me if I had heard of the movement called Emergent. Tony Jones's new book makes answering his question easier than ever. There's been a steadily growing literature by and about Emergent churches the last ten years, both friendly and critical, but his book now takes pride of place as the best on-ramp to enter the discussion. As one of Emergent's founders, its national coordinator (see www.emergentvillage.org and www.tonyj.net), the author of numerous previous books, and its leading spokesperson, Jones is at the vortex of all things Emergent.
His book is part history of the movement, part theological explanation of its core commitments, part storytelling, and part response to critics. One especially helpful feature is the book's twenty "dispatches" scattered throughout the text that crystallize Emergent thought and practice. For example, "Dispatch 12: Emergents embrace the whole Bible, the glory and the pathos." That is, they don't ignore or candy coat the hard parts of the story. Or "Dispatch 13: Emergents believe that truth, like God, cannot be definitively articulated by finite human beings." They reject dichotomies between the sacred and the secular (Dispatch 6) or the clergy and laity (Dispatch 19). They favor a church that functions "more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy" (Dispatch 16).
Another helpful feature is the four case studies of Emergent churches in Kansas City (Missouri), Dallas, Seattle, and Minneapolis (Jones's own church). Three appendices round out the dialogue: one on "Emergent Village Values and Practices," one called "A Response to Our Critics," and one on why Emergent has resisted calls to publish a doctrinal statement to clarify just what they do and don't believe.
Although academic scholars have engaged the discussion, one of the most encouraging characteristics of Emergent is that in its origins, methods, and intentions, it's a vibrant conversation taking place in the church, by the church, and for the church. Emergent's main players are mainly pastors asking pointed and poignant questions about what it means to be and do church. However right or wrong they might be, these are gospel practitioners doing the heavy-lifting in God's kingdom. If you want to understand Emergent, it's been said, visit one of their churches rather than just read a book.
Disillusionment with and deconstruction of all things churchly is Emergent's starting point. They're finished with business as usual. They pose many hard questions. Why did overwhelming percentages of white evangelicals kowtow to George Bush? Why does membership in liberal mainline denominations continue to hemorrhage? Why do people quit church, and why are people who stay so bored? Can churches avoid ecclesial bureaucratism and institutionalization? Is there any way beyond the rancorous debates about gays, ordination of women, politics, the environment, and dogmatic minutiae that have embittered believers everywhere? What would some clean sheet re-engineering of church look like if granted the freedom of innovative theology, structure, and practices? Emergents seek nothing less than "a new way of practicing Christianity" that finds "a way out of this mess."
Emergent alternatives, which are many and varied, "defy simple explanation and categorization" (40). Emergents offer no cookie-cutter proposals but rather "an ethos, a vibe, a sensibility" (39). They value inclusive and vigorous discussion, epistemological humility, theological modesty, and incarnational friendships. Emergents honor Gospel mysteries rather than explain them away. They embrace paradox rather than expunge it. They aim for gentle persuasion with personal story rather than imposition of right answers by "gotcha" rhetoric. They are "obsessed with dialogue" because in their view Jesus was a revolutionary who was and is "predictably unpredictable."
The Emergent movement is now roughly ten years old, and a mark of its maturity is Jones's frank acknowledgment of its many critics. He knows that Emergents can sound "supremely arrogant," "puerile," or like "adolescents in rebellion." It's a movement mainly among younger, white adults with evangelical backgrounds; Emergent churches tend to have relatively few children or older believers. Isn't it faddish or contrived, even naive, to think that replacing sanctuary pews with sofas will solve the genuine problems they identify? Inclusive dialogue is better than bitter recriminations, but isn't it coy and disingenuous not to affirm what you believe about, say, gay ordination or the reality of hell? While it's easy to identify mistakes by our Christian forbears, isn't it off-putting for Emergents to insinuate that they alone, finally and at long last, have the magic? Or maybe they'll just reinvent the wheel? Others have charged that Emergent is more smoke than fire, that they're merely angry evangelicals carving out space on the "New Christian Left" (a view that gains some credence since Brian McLaren became the board chair of Jim Wallis's rather mainstream Sojourners/Call to Renewal organization in 2006; see 51).
Jones raises and engages all these criticisms (and others). He acknowledges that "the jury is out" (71) on the Emergent effort to chart a middle course between conservatives and liberals. He admits that some of their creative but tenuous church experiments might not survive. But he goes to the heart of the matter, I think, when he notes what Max Weber called the "routinization of the charisma" and then writes that "the question for emergent Christianity is whether the temptation of routinization can be avoided or whether it's inevitable" (187). A footnote at the end of this sentence adds the perceptive admission that "your purchase of this book [or his writing of it?!] may be a sign of the very routinization that emergents would like to avoid" (250). Can Emergents "avoid being co-opted by the political and marketing forces of institutional American Christianity?" (204).
Someone once observed that "nothing happens without people, nothing lasts without institutions." Right now Emergent has lots of the former but little of the latter. To take one minor example, it's an easy pot shot for Emergents to criticize pastors who obsess about their retirement pensions (7, 9, 11, 136). But as Jones admits, institutionalization is not only inevitable, and not in itself bad (180), it's also necessary. Unless Emergents are independently wealthy, or take vows of poverty (an eminently Christian choice), as they grow older they too will fret about paying for teenage orthodontics, college tuition, and, yes, retirement.
The problem is even more acute because I think Jones is right when he says that the fermenting wine of the gospel expands and explodes its wineskins. The gospel can and ought to destabilize the very institutions that are inevitable, necessary, and even good (9, 35). In his book Heaven Below; Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), the historian Grant Wacker argued that early American pentecostals succeeded because they “bottled the lightning” without “stilling the fire or cracking the vessel.” Can Emergents do something similar? In any case, in the next-to-the-last-sentence of his book Jones predicts that all "attempts to redomesticate [Emergents] will fail" (220). Only time will tell whether that turns out to be true, and if it does, whether that constitutes Emergent's defining strength or glaring weakness.