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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Merging and Submerging

The only Christian died on a cross
- Nietzsche

Has the "Emerging Church" died? Such was the topic of a recent (and rather provocative) article on the Christianity Today website. This rather short and simple article coincides with a good deal of what I have been thinking through over the last year or so....ever since I walked away from institutional/organized religion.

The gist of the article R.I.P Emerging Church:

“The emerging church will disappear.” That is what my informant told me as we shared drinks at our clandestine watering hole. I felt like Luca Brasi being handed a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. The hit had been ordered…the emerging church’s fate had been sealed. In my informant’s mind, the death of the emerging church was a settled matter. I double-checked my surroundings for listening ears before whispering, “How can you be so sure?” The informant (who worked for a publisher) leaned forward and said their marketing plans included dropping the “Emerging Church” brand within two years.

That was two years ago.

Now comes word from recognized leaders and voices within the emerging church movement that the term has become so polluted that it is being dropped.

(Cf. McKnight article)

If you want my take on the issue, I favor a merging and submerging church: that those with a faith centered on Jesus would merge with culture and submerge beneath the turbulent waters of dogma, institution, and commercialized, market-driven religiosity.

My struggle is that I see all of Christianity as a fad, commercialized, consumer- and market-driven. To say "I am a Christian" is not to say that one identifies with Christ, but that one identifies with some form of a hyper-commercialized movement.

This explains, in part, the fact that the church has such a difficult time retaining those who are passionate about changing the world, have a heart for joining believers in open/authentic community, and have intelligent minds that desire to challenge status quo thinking. These are three key types of people that seem to be lacking in most church institutions. Most institutions tend to prefer organizing around static beliefs/practices rather than letting dynamic people loose to affect genuine change.

I can't help but sense an urgent need to purge and purify; a need to go underground; a need for silence, reflection, and growth.

In my opinion, the American church is neither hot nor cold. It is bland and boring. A few months back my boss told me that the water heater had not been working for quite sometime....but no one had noticed. Why? Because the water heater doesn't do a good job heating water, and so we don't ever expect the water to be hot. Such is the state of Christians.

Thought: Once the water is no longer hot, there is little difference between water that is merely warm and water that is cool.

When Nietzsche suggested that God is dead, wasn't he really just suggesting that God is not needed? If God doesn't actually exist, would that make a difference for the Christian religion? If we found out that there was never really a water heater to begin with, would the water temperature change?

Is it in the best interest of Jesus to let Christianity die? To put the movement out of its misery? I tend to think that the answer is, “yes.”

What would faith look like if it were just a gathering of people? Sharing life together? A non-Movement movement?

For most Christian leaders, a non-Movement movement would be too ambiguous…..the author of the above emergent church article says as much at the end of the article when he snidely remarks, “As the emerging church rides off into the sunset, where does that leave things? Well, news has been leaking about a new network being formed by Dan Kimball, Erwin McManus, and Scot McKnight among others…..They appear to have learned from the emerging church’s mistake—define purpose and doctrine early so your identity doesn’t get hijacked.”

But is it even possible to think faith without religion? To think spirituality without an Institution to regulate it? To think about Christ w/o Christianity?

Where is “faith” going these days?

The so-called "Reformers" did little to change the structure of institutional Christianity; they merely substituted different doctrines and introduced more legalistic standards to measure faith so as not to allow the church to devolve into the types of corruptions and abuses that Luther was so appalled to see when he journeyed to Rome as a naive young monk.

Interesting note: a friend recently informed me that Luther seriously considered the idea of organizing the new reformed churches as house churches. His one drawback was there were not enough people who could read, and hence there may be many house churches without someone to read the Bible…..hhhhmmmm…..but is such a drawback still an issue in 21st century America?

It is interesting that the emerging church appears to be going the way of the dinosaur. It was essentially a Movement that masqueraded as a non-movement. Hence, one kind of always felt as though a diagnosis of "multiple personalities disorder" was in order. I don’t mean to be too critical, but they did consciously decide to take this Movement public via mass distribution channels.

So......what now?

Eh hem….well, my thoughts….

I suggest: merge with culture and lose the holier-than-thou mentality; submerge from religion, dogma, and institution. Free people as individuals within community to pursue a pure and liberating faith.

Perhaps, this merging/submerging move would mean the death of commercialized Christianity and the use of "Christian" as an adjective: no more "Christian books," or "Christian music," or "Christian tee shirts," or "Christian worldviews," "Christian churches," or even "Christians.”

But to merge and submerge, as I am suggesting, would be the end of "Christianity" and "Church" as an institution and as an institutional powerhouse. Of course, such is still a radical suggestion....it means that the gathering of the faithful is organized around things like freedom, openness, love, acceptance, grace, and self-discovery......most Christians will prefer some sort of modified hybrid: an institution that merely shifts its values a bit. Add a bit more love, lose a bit of the moxy.....add some room to disagree on dogma, lose a bit of the need to control......sure, modifications can be made to ensure the survival of the mediocre institution, but in this era, I think such a suggestion is naive: the American church is overrun with the complacent, and a shift of values merely means that we will be complacent about a new set of "priorities." But perhaps this is an issue I am wrong about. Perhaps institutions with new values would, in fact, provide a new and fresh vision around which something powerful and dynamic could be formed….hhhhmmmm…..I’m doubtful, though……I think we need something more radical and extreme, something less man-made, synthetic, or artificial. Something that indicates a real connection to an external power surge. It seems difficult for me to see how things like love, freedom, grace, and power can be captured by religion. Religion and institution tend to kill these things…..but regardless, it seems quite clear that churches simply will not survive with any vibrancy unless something changes. And faith itself seems to me to be on the brink.

My suggestion of merging and submerging would seem to require the greater amount of courage, boldness, and failure: small groups striking it out on their own; trial and error, victories and failures, highs and lows. People of faith (and even non-faith) who are no longer connected by the obligation of a large-scale religious affiliation but by a more intangible and undefinable connectedness.


Rachel said...

I have a bit of an issue with your "merge" idea. "freedom, openness, love, acceptance, grace, and self-discovery" are great and the world at large would love that kind of theology if it stopped there and didn't include "Christlike" and "holy". In our effort to separate from dead, corrupt, corporate-Christianity its important not to forget that 'in-but-not- of' thing.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi Rachel!

I love the baby pics on your blog.

By way of a brief response....I tend to define "holy" and "Christlike" as "freedom, openness, love, acceptance, grace, and self-discovery."....I mean, that's not necessarily an absolute definition, but I'm curious as to what you mean by "Christlike" and "holy."

I also tend to think that defining "the world" as those things that stand in the way of freedom/openness/love/acceptance/grace/etc. goes a long way to understanding what it means to be opposed to the life and message of Christ.

What think ye, my friend???

Next time I am in Tejas and we play clue I'm going to win!...I knew it was Mr. Green!...that damned schemer that he is!

Rachel said...

Yeah, Green's a tough nut to crack ;)

ok, so....
I would definitely include "freedom, openness, love, acceptance, grace, and self-discovery" in my list of things that we are called to in Christ but I don't think that is a complete list. As far as Holy is concerned, I define that as 'set apart.' Not in a "better than everyone else and don't want to rub elbows with them" sort of way, that sort of defeats the whole thing. I mean that we are supposed to honor God with our lives in such a way that everything else becomes secondary to that purpose.
Coming back to the "merge", grace, love, freedom, acceptance thing. I think I am a little over sensitive to those terms because they have become buzz-word in the church of watered-down-touchy-feely-don't-rock-the-boat christianity. Jesus gave us the model of grace, love and acceptance for all people but he also challenged people to change their live, told it like it was, and pissed quite a few people off because of it. If we just preached love and acceptance no one would have a problem with us, its when we start talking about faith in Christ being the only way to God and that a person might actually need to change the way they live in order to live in a way that honors God that we start getting into trouble.

I'm sure I've made an ass of myself one way or another but I have to bring up one more thing.

I think that the ideas of love and acceptance have been cheapened by our culture. To truly love all people and accept all people is such a powerful thing and I don't know that there are many who actually embody those ideals (myself included). I think we let ourselves off too easy.

Ok, I've been at this too long and I need to pay attention to my kid.

Thanks for the brain-food!

Jonathan Erdman said...


One more question....what do you mean by "change of life"?

Also, yes, I agree that the whole love/grace/freedom thing becomes a cheap buzz word in many religious circles....and other non-religious circles too....turue that....still, they seem foundational: faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these...

Jason Hesiak said...

i'm confused by the merging with culture thing. wouldn't that mean the exact commercilization that you and i are annoyed with?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Jason, my friend, how so???

Jason Hesiak said...

uuhh...the culture is dominated by that very commercialization! i've even heard you complain...i think in your Girard post...that "Christian culture" imitates the "culture at large" with all of its "Christian" pop stars, ect..."Christian rap", "Christian heavy metal", blah blah blah. there is an underground "counter-culture" that isn't "Christian", but is this what you are referring to when you say "merging with culture"? i wouldn't think so, or you would have clarified, i would think.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ah, thank you Jason....now I see what you are questioning.....here's my thinking, to clarify:

I'm opposed to "Christian culture"--the idea that we need to develop our own "purified" version of culture. So, we produce movies and music that do not use four letter words, we open schools that teach a so-called "biblical" worldview, we have Christian yoga, etc.

Usually much of this will center (locally) around a church that kind of helps regulate what is okay and what is not okay.

Really what we do is create a Christian sub-culture.

I'm saying ditch this approach of creating a separate "Christian" culture...i.e., get rid of using "Christian" as an adjective....and merge with and be active within the culture in which we find ourselves embedded. I am NOT saying to just do whatever without thinking critically or morally....i.e., I don't think that we should drive SUV's just b/c everyone else in our culture does so....What I do think is important is to recognize that there is no one, "Christian" way to do anything; or one "Christian" way to live or act.

Jason, does that help clarify a bit???

ktismatics said...

If you think merge/submerge is the right move, I say go for it. Why expect the Emergents to lead or follow you there? Maybe you'll meet different, more interesting people along that other path.

I think maybe we've discussed this before, but in the "RIP Emerging Church" piece it seems that McKnight & co. are just retrenching in traditional evangelicalism by adopting a conservative doctrinal statement and rebranding "evangelistic" as "missional."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, I agree with you K, that McKnight & Co. are not doing anything too radically different, and yet they are different enough from mainline Evangelicalism that they can be considered as doctrinal deviants.

I tend to think that there are a lot of people of faith (perhaps many who are formerly of the "Christian" variety) who just kind of quit on Christianity and did the merge/submerge thing without any kind of substantive reflectiveness on whether they wanted to merge, emerge, submerge, etc. I think it is always interesting to meet such people. The Christianity that grew out of Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles was such a huge force in the 20th century, and there are many many casualties of war! But there are also many who want to kind of recontextualize the evangelical approach (as McKnight and others seek to do). I'm not down on McKnight at all, I think he has some good thoughts to add to the mix. I guess I just feel that for myself, I'm just not excited about any new Movement.

But, yes, I have met some interesting people along the way, and I continue to meet interesting people.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Even though an acknowledged agnostic, could you see yourself involved with any emerging/merging/submerging/etc. group? If so, what might that look like?

ktismatics said...

Could I see myself involved with merging/submerging? Probably, depending on what you see holding it together and giving it movement. Getting the branding that distinguishes Christian from non-Christian would help. Figuring out what faith, hope and love are about would be good, along with the truth, beauty and justice. Trying to discern the trajectories of the Spirit and how they're different from groupthink and marketing. Also some sense of self-discovery and self-creation and personal engagement that doesn't lapse into self-absorption and egoism.

What does merging/emerging look like to you at this preliminary stage, Erdman?

ktismatics said...

I know it's tacky to promote one's own blog on somebody else's blog, but if anyone here is interested today I'm starting a series of exegeses on Paul's theme of the "new creation." (I doubt whether many of the regular Ktismatics readers are interested in these Bible studies I undertake from time to time.) Part of my inference from the "new creation" idea is that Paul probably wouldn't like the distinction between "Christian" and "non-Christian" any more than he liked the one between Jew and Gentile.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Your first post is excellent. Here is the link, for those intersted: New Creation in Gal 6

Jonathan Erdman said...

What strikes me as important about your current exegesis of Paul's "new creation" theology is that it would seem, on the surface, to support a "merging/submerging" approach to faith, don't you think?

It seems to me that most of the Protestant world reverted back into the Old Testament, rather than charting new territory in the new era of Christ. The Dispensationalists of yonder days understood the importance of not building too many bridges back to the Old Covenant and the importance of living in the new era....unfortunately they got quite screwed up by getting wrapped up in the "literal" Bibly Fundamentalist hysteria, and they focused too much energy on end times prophecy. As such, they couldn't ever fully realize the powerful doctrines upon which they had unwittingly stumbled.

But you (Ktismatics) have really hit on a key issue in the debate about emerging, merging, or submerging: are we working toward a reconciliation of all people? Or, is the era of Christ merely an upgraded form of Judaism under law: a focus on exclusivism and division.

ktismatics said...

I've had debates at Open Source Theology about this issue of Christian exclusivity and its connection to the Old Testament. Andrew, the guy who runs OST, regards the Church as direct descendant of Israel in the sense of being a peculiar people set apart to God in the midst of a fallen creation that's destined for judgment. This seems like the kind of thinking that Paul is reacting against. After all, Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and it sure doesn't seem to me that he's ever trying to get the Gentiles to enter into a Christianized version of Israel. The establishment of a separate Christian culture you're reacting against does sound a lot like Old Testament thinking. When the old distinctions no longer hold it's always easier to build them right back up again than to create something else inside the void.

Jonathan Erdman said...

....which also relates to philosophical discussion of "the other" and/or "othering."