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Emergent Terminology: It’s Not About Terminology

blahblahblah.jpg Perhaps I’ve said my share already as I’ve seen the comments that others have been making about the shift — for some — away from using emerging/emergent terminology. Having had a couple of my posts picked up and linked around, I thought I’d be done, but it turns out I’m not — even if it turns out I’m saying more than my fair share. I’ve been pondering the bigger picture of it though, and late last week something clicked as I began to see the whole matter from a different angle, and I’ve decided there’s an alternate interpretation to be applied. This post, I think, is my most important observation of the discussion, and one which I hope time will prove to be accurate. And as I’ve said before, language is important to me, even if others tire of the talk of words. Eventually I do as well though, so hopefully this week will wrap up all that I feel I need to say about this battle of words. And anyway, I’ll point out that it’s not about words anyway, nor is it about people de-friend-ing one another.

Firstly, in the midst of what is portrayed by some as a fracturing (or even the death) of the emerging church, or perhaps a falling out or distancing of leaders one from another, those who are actually speaking first-hand for themselves are affirming relationship with the very leaders from whom they are supposedly distancing themselves. Rather odd, and contradictory, n’est-ce pas? Certainly a frustration for many well-known figures when people hear part A of a statement and skip to a conclusion without incorporating part B of the statement into said conclusion. So in the midst of saying that emergent terminology is being dropped by a person or ministry, why is it that their efforts to carefully outline the respect they have for those who continue to use and represent emergent terminology are overlooked?

Secondly, how is it possible that the emerging church “died” so suddenly? Some have suggested it was coming, but if it’s “over,” how is it that those in the middle of it are so taken by surprise that they still insist it’s continuing? Now, I realize that one could say it’s commonplace for a movement to end up as a mausoleum whose occupants are unaware that the movement has died Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software — one might even say this is inevitable — but I think that jumping to this conclusion about the emerging church from the present stage is not only erroneous, but represents a “grave” misunderstanding of the nature of emergence theory, from which the emergent church draws its name.

Let’s begin with the death myth. If “emerging” is simply a metaphor for “becoming,” it may be viewed as a newer, or renewed, version of the cry of semper reformanda, so that what is being described as death is more likely to be an evolution of what the emerging church expects to become. In a sense, the hope of the emerging church has always been to shed an old skin… a hope the church has in fact held for centuries. This present “evolution” of the emerging church may not be (read: is rather known not to be) its final stage, but it does represent a form of maturation from where it was. Not a complete maturation, of course, but the maturation in a specific area. Considering that those within the movement are continuing to pursue this same course of “emerging” into a revised form of church, we may conclude that there remains some life yet in the old dog. If this isn’t fully convincing, just consider it a background for the explanation that follows a brief survey of recent commentary.

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I suppose when I title a post “The Post-Modern Post-Emergent Post-Evangelical Post-Charismatic Post-Fundamentalist Post-Label,” I shouldn’t be surprised at being called a “post-er child.” Maybe I deserved it. This post, together with my Emerge-ed?, which introduced the topic, seem to have gotten the most attention. (My lengthily-titled post contains links to a couple of other posts on the subject.) I even got quoted by one of those heresy-hunting blogs as it took a swipe at the network being started by Dan Kimball, Scot McKnight, and others, who it describes as “disgruntled,” calling them “break-away emergents” (and calling Rick Warren “one of the emerging church’s strongest supporters”) as the post attacked Lausanne and a number of church leaders by name, including Len Sweet. Clearly the author of the post is a little out of touch, as the characterizations of this new network as “breakaway” and formed by “disgruntled” leaders is not just a little askew, but heinously inaccurate.

And it’s not just the fringe element that seems happy to imagine a fractured or dying emerging church. Michael Patton suggests that any celebration at their (our) demise is premature, since this is merely preparation for “the second coming of emergers.” He refers to the infamous Out of Ur post as an example of people who call the emerging church dead “in nomenclature, if not in spirit.” He then inserts words into the mouths of Scot McKnight, Andrew Jones, and Dan Kimball to say they are calling it “a nominal death,” based on their attributed belief that “the name itself is no longer descriptive of the original intent of the group, but that the principles expressed will move on.” He claims that “Scot’s post had the spirit of a ‘call to arms’ of the emerging ethos,” but that’s not at all what I took away from his post on the new network. He then says that “Others, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones may to be holding on to its designation with some hesitant resolve.” Again, that’s not how I read their reactions. Tony was quite defensive, which suggests he’s got no issue with the name (which should have been patently obvious). For his part, Brian said, “I’m as much a part of things as ever and I can’t imagine why anyone would think otherwise.” “Anyone” in this case being a certain Publishers Weekly article that seemed determined to use the word “beyond” in connection with Emergent.

Then there’s Julie Clawson Claiming Emergent in her own voice, and Steve Taylor came out and said why he’s still emergent — he writes,

And now some of my friends are walking away from the label emerging. And the www, which helped carry the conversation, is now carrying the demise. And lots of people love it and will work very hard to spread the news. And frankly, this will make some conversations even more antagonistic. When I go to speak, someone will put up their hand and so “Oh, but I hear emerging is dying.”

And I will look at them and part of me will want to cry. How could my efforts to be part of God’s work, born for such a time as this, now be called dead.

And part of me will want to hit over the head all the people who have stirred and misrepresented and fought over labels and words and used the web to spread disinformation and increase their blog ratings.

And part of me will smile. What will they call the next thing, I wonder?

Well, this isn’t all about blog traffic for me, but I take his point. There’s nothing quite like controversy, and two articles that appeared at about the same time seem to have started it all off. In the aftermath, David Neff says “You can feel the heat of Scot [McKnight]’s vehemence.” I’ve never thought of Scot as a particularly “vehement” kind of guy, so that’s a new image for me. Neff doesn’t misstate anything when he writes,

Scot admits (as Out of Ur suggested) that a new network is being born, but it is “not a sister/brother alliance” of Emergent Village. It’s not there to take the place of the emerging streams. Instead, the new network will focus on evangelism, a dimension that has been weak in some emerging churches. Scot and friends are building the new evangelistic alliance on the foundations of the classically evangelical and seriously holistic 1974 Lausanne Covenant. That’s a good place to start, because doctrinal questions and rumors that circulated around Emergent and emerging have weighed down some noble efforts. The Lausanne Covenant is as sound as doctrinal statements come. The new network shouldn’t have to rebut rumors about flawed doctrine.

Well, heresy-hunters excepted. And Neff’s helpful clarification sets the stage to reinterpret what really is going on.

Unfortunately, the introduction and survey to this point has reached the length of standing on its own, so the remainder of the post which contains the important bits of what I wanted to say will stand on its own and be live tomorrow, in just a few hours: Emergent Terminology: It’s Not About Fracturing.

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