by Kathy Smith

Recently, while walking our dogs in the neighborhood, my husband and I saw a girl and her mother riding their bikes. Clothed in helmets and reflective jackets they approached us on the sidewalk. The girl rode a bike that appeared too small for her, equipped with a set of training wheels. The training wheels seemed overly cautious mostly spinning in the air uselessly. She rode past in nearly perfect balance, knees grazing elbows.

The situation left me thoughtful. Training wheels are designed to build the skills necessary for bike riding. But there is a point in learning where training wheels fulfill their purpose and become unnecessary. Riding with training wheels does not invalidate riding without them or vice versa. Both qualify as riding a bike. The more I thought about training wheels and bike riding the more it led to thinking about the church This bike riding metaphor, though not perfect, is helpful for thinking about the ongoing emerging/emergent/emergence/missional* church conversation. Emergent communities take off the training wheels of congregational convention, questioning the assumptions and expectations of what it means to be church. Even questioning whether terminology like “church” and all it implies (property, buildings, pastor, staff, programs, budget, Christian education, etc.) are helpful or make sense any more.

It occurred to me that a biblical image for this conversation could be found in Psalm 32:9. “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you,” Emergent communities are becoming “unbridled.” Emergent communities do not duplicate previously designed congregational models. These models are often based on denominational definitions and/or structured organizational plans. Instead, individuals and families come together to prioritize intentional relationships and seek God together. Sharing life together is their primary characteristic, informs how they seek God, and is the fundamental reason for being.


Relationships and Communal Identity

Trust and commitment to one another are the building blocks of relationship. Full relationship, suggested in imagery of the psalm, is characterized by a desire to “stay near” to one another and to God. For emergent communities relationship supersedes everything else. Relationship is the fundamental characteristic of divine/human, human/human, and human/creation interaction. Relationships of freedom, companionship, and equality invite a level of immediacy in one another’s lives.

Gone are the discreet separations of life into categories like home, church, work, family, friends, neighborhood, and ethnicity. All communities  are God’s communities. All tables are God’s tables. All conversations invite God’s presence. This perspective calls to mind Jesus’ words to the disciples: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” All relationships and situations bear the full potentiality of God’s presence. There is an embracing of God’s Spirit well beyond the four walls of these communities (if those four walls even exist!).
Participants in emergent communities draw together formerly disparate parts of their lives into an integrated whole. There are no longer “church friends,” and “other friends,” for example. Friends are friends. Conversation is conversation. Religious identity is not something different from everyday life. It does not shape or engage with everyday life. It is everyday life. Shared at every level from conversations about finances to shared living arrangements, what has been separated into distinct life categories in the past is reunited within a holistic view of what it means to be followers of Jesus. The congregational experience is not primarily a sanctuary or refuge from a hostile world. It is a place where life and worship meet with the expectation that this will bless and even benefit individual lives, the various communities in which they participate, and the world.

This has a further effect on the communal identity. Paul’s admonition to consider oneness in Christ is fundamental: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Participants in emergent communities hold together former dualisms of mind and body, flesh and spirit, sacred and secular as they reflect theologically on life experience. Broad collaboration on everything in communal life informs worship, preaching, mission, service, neighborhood involvement, and communal organization. No conversation is off limits. Voicing doubt is acceptable. Questions are encouraged.

Communal participation in emergent communities is not an attractive accessory added on to an already fully shaped and organized life. There is a rejection of the religious market mentality in which all congregations compete for members. This is not value added living where potential participants are wooed into considering one option among many. Emergent communities invite life lived in relationship, not membership in an organization. As a result, identity is fluid and flexible.


Leaning into New Life

Emergent communities expect and invite identity to change as new folks enter. Instead of assimilating outsiders into a well-defined and structured community, a flattened organizational structure encourages full participation from the beginning. New member training, classes, orientation, and mentoring are not necessary because membership in its conventional form does not exist. Emergent communities assume that new participants bring knowledge and skills about communality with them. There is a deep trust in the wisdom and capability of the community as a whole to collegially engage, influence one another, and be changed by new participants. Unlike congregational communities where differences in theology, worship style, or specific doctrine might disqualify certain participants or limit their power, everyone is encouraged to bring their own background, experience, and understanding to the mix, enriching and deepening communal identity.
With grassroots innovation and a flattened, collaborative structure, these communities reflect a generation that values and expects cooperation, collaboration, and venues for creativity. Average age is often in the low 30s, though 40s and 50s are increasingly represented as well. Raised in an era of environmental disasters, financial crisis, and looming debt this generation seeks communities where reducing, reusing, recycling, reinventing, reimagining, and redefining are means for expressing faith. Careful theological conversation results in communal forms that better represent the lives of participants and the contexts in which they seek to follow Jesus. Theology reflected in intentional communal form is a clear and relevant connection to the conversations, social justice engagement, and shared living experiences seen as essential to the life of faith.

This is not a well-ordered, efficient communal identity. Emergent communities embrace the disorganized, difficult, uncomfortable aspects of relationship with one another and with God. Participants wade deeply into discomfort, recognizing the uneasiness that often comes with following Jesus, the lack of answers, and the mistakes that come with risk taking. Communities as a whole refuse to cautiously order or overly orchestrate gatherings. This is not amateurish, but rather a reflection of a more relaxed understanding of purpose. Gathering for worship or for a meeting is not about efficiency and production. Gathering is about intentional relationship, the connections made through them, and discovering God in the midst of it all.


Not a Style, Not a Rejection

Contrary to popular belief, emergent communities are not about simply doing church differently. This is not a conversation about the style inherent in pews versus chairs versus couches. It is not about safeguarding the faith or its various discreet expressions found in doctrines, creeds, catechisms, and polity. It is not about relevance or irrelevance. It is not about technology. It is not about attracting younger people to worship and church membership. It is not about a theory of atonement or a rejection of one. It is not about traditional liturgy, hymns, organ music and paper bulletins versus contemporary worship with projection screens, bands, hand clapping and praise music. It is not about naming some congregations good and right and calling others bad and wrong. These things are about style and preference and are equivalent to exchanging one set of training wheels for another. They all represent a conventional understanding of church.
Rather than comparing or exchanging training wheels, the emergent conversation is about the willing examination of those commitments and understandings that make up the conventional forms, definitions, expectations, and assumptions of what church is. If the emergent church can be described at all, it is as a theological/philosophical shift in what it means to follow Jesus. Instead of carrying forward knowledge and ritual, passing on a legacy, participants in emergent communities seek to discover the expression of God’s presence among them and within their unique time and place, especially with regard to neighbors who are marginalized by society and circumstances.

Far from rejecting institutions, these communities embrace institutionalization as an evolutionary outgrowth of groups. The difference is in the attempt to institutionalize openness, flexibility, and egalitarian participation, rather than the form of worship, type of music, manner of celebrating communion, doctrine, or denominational polity and definitions. New communities are attempting to institutionalize a radical theological freedom and identity through fundamental forms of flexibility, cooperation, innovation, creativity, experimentation, collaboration, and generosity. Being committed to one another in these ways takes expression in a much more fluid, less predictable form of congregational identity. This is intentional. Participants resist the temptations of established denominational or congregational viewpoints. They seek to engage scripture with fresh eyes and ears. They use language carefully without assuming religious vocabulary, sometimes naming or renaming spaces, events, and rituals to more clearly reflect the theological values of the community. They talk not about congregational location as much as they talk about who is a part of the community. Creativity is encouraged as participants engage and reengage the essence of communal identity, sharing avocation and vocation alike and experiencing spirituality not as a commodity to be consumed, but as a way of life.


Nothing is Different, Yet Everything Changed

Returning to the bike riding metaphor, comparing conventional congregations to emergent ones is like comparing riding a bike with training wheels to the philosophy of bike riding. Trusting the training wheels of theology, doctrine, tradition, ritual, form, and function shapes conventional congregations. Trusting both the concept of bike riding and the individual’s ability to do it, emergent congregations are formed differently. Sometimes removing the training wheels is an individual’s choice. Sometimes it is someone else who encourages the learner to try riding alone. Emergent communities offer support for individuals to try different kinds of bikes, while emboldening them to ride in different ways.

Just as riding a bike with training wheels is still riding a bike, the emergent conversation is not a critique of those who find conventional church forms life giving and sustaining. Conventional congregations are valid forms of church. Emergent communities simply choose to venture forth without their assumed conventions. Grateful for the witness and faithfulness of conventional congregations, emergent communities stand alongside them speaking and living as companion followers of Christ. Confident in the theological concept of relationship, emergent communities trust in God, expect to make mistakes, and endeavor to unbridle the sacred power, creativity, and good news that is experienced when people share their lives with one another.


*For simplicity I will primarily use the term “emergent” to describe both the movement and the conversations happening in the church. I acknowledge the inadequacy of these terms, the fact that each is quickly becoming outdated, and that none by itself encapsulates the movement, communities, or individuals who participate. Language being what it is we will undoubtedly continue to search for accurate ways of conveying what is happening and what it means. 



Discussion Questions

  1. How does this discussion of the emergent church compare with what you have previously understood about it?
  2. In your opinion, should the emergent be set against the conventional form of congregation or vice versa? Why or why not?
  3. In reading this article did certain younger or unconventional individuals you know come to mind? Why might the emergent church be appealing to certain groups of people?
  4. Do you feel defensive about your congregation or personal spirituality? Why or why not?
  5. Does the “unbridled” language make you feel uncomfortable? Do you sense a loss of control or that chaos will be invited? What does that say about the people with whom you are in relationship in the Christian community?

Congregations magazine, 2012-09-11
2012 Issue 3, Number 3