I recently finished reading two books by guys who are associated with the Emergent Church.
Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell. Zodervan, 2007
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed yet hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian by Brian McLaren. Zondervan, 2004.
If you have not heard of the Emergent Church before (which I am fairly certain many in our congregation have not) it is...well... actually it can be little difficult to explain exactly what it is because it is such a broad, sweeping movement. McLaren's subtitle to his book probably says it best. In many ways, it is an attempt to get past all the extra labels that sometimes define us as Christians so that we can be more genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. However, as the subtitle also suggests (and as McLaren is careful to explain in his chapter "Why I am emergent") this is not a matter of just ignoring the titles or different traditions of Christianity. It is a matter of trying to recognize the truth that exists in every tradition while also being honest about the ways in which each tradition has failed to be truly Christian.
On one hand, I find these books and the movement that has produced them to be very encouraging and exciting. They are encouraging because these authors are well trained, well educated pastors who are also excellent writers that are able to translate their learning into language that is clear, understandable, and relevant to our culture. (I found Sex God to be particularly good and would recommend it to anyone but especially to teens, parents of teens, or young adults. ) The ability to speak the depths of theology in words that anyone can understand is always a trait to be admired. Furthermore, these books and authors are exciting because they are simply seeking to be faithful disciples; to be the Church in a changing culture which is, of course, a challenge with which we must continually wrestle.
On the other hand, after reading these books and engaging in some conversations with others about the Emergent Church, I feel I am left with the question "What's the big deal?" I mean this in both a positive and negative sense. I don't want to take away from what I have already said at this point. I really do think these are good books that are worth reading because they will challenge many Christians to think about their faith in a way that they previously had not.
I wonder what the big deal is because the Emergent Church has generated a considerable amount of buzz. There have been some who have attacked it vehemently as if it were some enormous threat to the Church. In fact, in the Church of the Nazarene, one of our General Superintendents (the highest position in our denomination, for anyone reading this who may not be Nazarene) listed the Emergent Church as one of the three biggest challenges facing the Church today in a speech that she made. Many others have warned that the Emergent Church is a great danger, something to be feared by anyone who truly values their faith. To which I must respond "Really?!?". What exactly is so dangerous about it? Is it the fact that it encourages us to have the kind of unity we are supposed to have as the Church? Is it that it remembers that the whole point of doctrine is not more propositions to be memorized but words that are to guide us to be more Christ-like? Is it that it actually gives greater importance to the story of Scripture and the traditions of the Church than it does to denominational identity? Certainly, these are risky and dangerous endeavors but they are risky and dangerous precisely in the way that God wants us to be risky and dangerous as Christians, not in a way that endangers our faith. This is not to say that I agree with everything that Bell or McLaren have to say but I do agree with their general approach to what it means to be Christian and to me it seems to be such an obviously correct approach that I wonder why there are those who oppose it so adamently.
However, I also wonder what the big deal is on the other side of the buzz. I imagine that there are also those who have embraced the Emergent Church as if it were the answer to all of the Church's problems which it obviously is not. It too will have its flaws like any other Christian movement even if all of those flaws are not yet apparent. Similar to other broad, sweeping movements in the Church, I suspect that the danger of the Emergent Church is not so much a danger inherent in the movement itself but a danger in the attitude people can take toward it. The attitude of "if our congregation could just become Emergent then the masses would flock to Jesus" which is clearly misguided. To the credit of McLaren, Bell, and other leaders in the movement they do not promote this kind of attitude. In fact, for a church to wear the title "Emergent" would probably go against the very grain of the movement itself since the whole point is not to be this or that kind of Christian, whether Emergent or otherwitse. The point is simply to be Christian.
Therefore, I find these books to be good reading that I would recommend to others. I find the movement as a whole to be encouraging and at times exciting because I think it represents a proper approach to being the Church in our present culture. However, I also really have no interest in becoming "emergent" myself or making our church into an "emergent congregation" or allowing the Emergent Church to be my model for what I believe about the Church and the Christian faith. Instead, I think that every Christian and every church must simply be a part of the same conversation of which the Emergent Church is a part; the conversation that asks "How are we to be the Church in the situation where we find ourselves today?"