Call Me Crazy, But… (my response to Emergent’s Latest Press Release)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 14, 2005

Today, Emergent announced that they are adapting to expand to their growing influence.  This means that they will be bulking up organizationally and naming Tony Jones as a full time director.  Read more about that here.

Now, before I launch into my critique, I want to share some of my thoughts regarding Emergent in general.  I used to be really cynical about them.  If you read my blog about Christian Kitsch, you’ll know why.  While there has always been a core to Emergent that I respect (its adventerously constructive approach to theology and ecclesiology), there have been some flavors among some who identify themselves with Emergent that are less than exciting–the INCREASED homogeneity, the sometimes willy-nilly slapping together of traditional elements into a sort of digitized frankenstein of pomo-sacramentalism, the over-reaction and over-rejection of established churches, etc.  Nevertheless, I have found the movement as a whole to be helpful and neccesary.  There is some good thinking coming out of Emergent, and I think the discussion has gotten better and richer over time.  I was getting more and more on board…more willing to engage and identify myself with Emergent…

But then today, they announced that they are beefing themselves up organizationally.  That might not seem like a big idea to most of you.  To me, however, this is a huge mis-step. 

Call me crazy, but I think the best thing for the emergent movement
is for it to de-centralize and dissipate. My argument is similar to an
argument made by Brian McClaren: the best thing for the Church is to
decrease attendence by sending people out. The emergent movement is
gaining influence. The ideas are reproducing like bunnies. I simply
don’t see what purpose it serves at this point to strenghten the
Center. Saying that Emergent is "a conversation" when it is
increasingly looking institutional isn’t a good thing. Fostering
conversation through a centralized conference seems to me to be a way
of making sure the conversation goes in the way that a handful of
leaders want it to go. Now, none of this would be a problem if the goal
was to start a nation-wide association of affiliated Emergent?
churches. If the goal is something more like an association or
denomination, then this is a good move. But if I were trying to foster
a movement that is supposed to be fluid, open, and evolving, I might start
with a central discussion forum or conference (as Emergent did). But
after people caught the flavor, I’d close up shop and let the movement
take over. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that the only reason to
bolster the organization and take advantage of new organizational
networks is to manage the conversation and make sure that it develops
towards a desired end-result. That isn’t an inherently bad thing to do,
per se, but it is no longer a conversation, and it isn’t exactly a
movement either. So as much as I’ve been growing to love the Emergent
conversation, I think we should be scattering rather than strengthening
the center.

really wonder if this is a huge mis-step. It seems like the typical
driving forces of American institutionalization are at work here. The
first step was brand-establishment. The second step is strenghtening
the company. THe third step is usually to cut out competition and


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7 Responses to “Call Me Crazy, But… (my response to Emergent’s Latest Press Release)”

  1. graham on June 14th, 2005 1:53 pm

    Does it help if we draw a distinction between Emergent (as an organisation/conversation) and The Emerging Church as a movement?

    I don’t think this announcement means that the emerging church (if such a thing really exists) is being managed or organised any more than it has been before. I think it just means that the organisation recognises that it may need to shape up a bit.

  2. Van S on June 14th, 2005 2:14 pm

    Graham, if there were a clearer distinction, it would help. Here in the states especially there isn’t a clear distinction. Emergent (the organization) says that it is just one conversation, but they are the center around which all other conversations seem to happen in this country. If Emergent were still called “Terra Nova” and there were other strong and recognizable organizations out there, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

  3. Jeff on June 14th, 2005 5:17 pm

    Interesting. But not surprising. I understand the need to make such a move, but i resonate with your critique. It is in effect an effort to control the conversation. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Emergent as an official network/denomination in the near future. I have already been a part of one such discussion several years ago.

  4. Van S on June 14th, 2005 9:09 pm

    I’m glad we’re on the same page with this one, Jeff. I was afraid I was over-reacting. I was enouraged to read (on the US emerging blog website) that Doug has similar concerns. They didn’t take this latest step lightly. I think it is a mistake, but a redeemable one.

  5. todd h on June 16th, 2005 12:02 am

    I’ve always been kind of ambivalent about emergent. One the one hand I admire the efforts to re-think the ways that the church is conceived today, but on the other hand it’s like the cool kids of evangelicalism playing at church by purposefully substituting other practices for the ones from the seeker movement.

    So, part of me says it’s a bad move to institutionalize, but then again it lends them some credibility while providing an official spokesperson to defend and promote the movement.

    I don’t know - knock yourselves out emergent.

  6. djchuang on June 19th, 2005 10:17 am

    good thoughts and concerns.. I think if there was a way to have a legal entity known as an organization serve the emerging church, which I would like to think and believe Emergent has said, that Emergent is not the only conversation about emerging church, and that the emerging church is much larger than Emergent, then that would be what Emergent would like to use its resources (people and financial) to make a contribution towards. What I would not like to see is for Emergent to always be apologetic, defensive, and making lots of disclaimers about what it is and what it is not, and just get on with the important conversations that need to be had.

  7. Van S on June 22nd, 2005 11:34 am

    I agree, DJ. If things could just be simplified and clear, then they can just move ahead. Unfortunately, the language confuses the heck out of people coming into the conversation and can be counter productive. But I am on board with the wish for things just to move ahead.

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