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5 Suggestions for the Emerging Church, revisited (or: Calling for a New Pneumatology)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 13, 2007

Last night I decided to read through some old blog posts. My blog is the closest thing I have to a journal. Reading through old posts imparted to me a sense of development and growth to which I might otherwise be clueless. Much has happened in 2.5 years.

Some of my posts made me cringe–they were unreflective and shoddy. Others made me feel a sense of craftsman’s pride. Several posts issued hopeful challenges; these posts called for change or response. I’d like to highlight one of those old posts. On December 15, 2004, I wrote a post in which I made 5 suggestions to the emerging church. Here they are, abridged:

  1. Don’t forsake working with existing networks of churches.
  2. Take your time learning from traditions before you implement their practices and beliefs.
  3. Rethink Pneumatology.
  4. Challenge homogeneity.
  5. Be Different.

Since that earlier post was written, two things have changed. First, my understanding of the emerging church phenomenon (or is it, perhaps more apt to say: “phenomena”?) has grown. Second, the movement itself has grown (both in maturity and in numbers). I now realize that my critiques (especially with point 1 and 5) were too simplistic. But I’ve also seen the movement address the sorts of concerns that I, and many others, have raised. The emerging church continually challenges its own homogeneity. It continues to ask the hard questions. And while the criticism that the emerging church is simply seeker 2.0 can always be levelled at some, it is increasingly becoming a baseless and weak criticism. In every point, I have new reason for hope. Except for, perhaps, number 3.

I’m still concerned about our lack of deep pneumatological reflection. To say it in non-theological-nerd language: We in the emerging church haven’t really thought about the Holy Spirit deeply enough.

Allow me to state my original critique:

Unless our praxis is shaped by the Spirit, then we will end up with yet another set of static models. Postmodernism allows us to conceive of dynamic systems that work as open sets. Let’s utilize this philosophical freedom to conceive of ways of being and doing the church that orients us towards life and growth, rather than falling into new ways of limiting one another. This area is of utmost importance, since how we conceive of Pneumatology effects our understanding of authority, leadership, decision-making, mobilization, cultural engagement, etc.

Quite frankly, many of my emerging church friends (not including the post-charismatic or post-Pentecostals that I know, like John Musick) are only accidentally pneumatological. Their pneumatological reflections seem to be limited to common grace. In other words, they tend to say: “God is at work in all sorts of areas in culture. We, the church, need to get on board with these expressions of the beautiful, the true, and the good.”

While such cultural expressions are indeed the work of the Spirit, I’m sometimes afraid that it can sometimes be easy to miss the uniquely powerful ways that the Spirit is made manifest through the Church.

I tend to think that the emerging church, in our desire to be intellectually and culturally rigorous, have jettisoned too much of that messy, ignorant-seeming, Holy Spirit “stuff” that seems to be the domain of pietists and Pentecostals.

More on this soon…

for further reading . . .

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Comments

11 Responses to “5 Suggestions for the Emerging Church, revisited (or: Calling for a New Pneumatology)”

  1. Sivin Kit on April 13th, 2007 7:17 pm

    Good one … and I agree especially with the warning here …

    “I tend to think that the emerging church, in our desire to be intellectually and culturally rigorous, have jettisoned too much of that messy, ignorant-seeming, Holy Spirit “stuff” that seems to be the domain of pietists and Pentecostals.”

  2. Greg Laughery on April 14th, 2007 1:05 am

    Tried to leave a comment over at twin cities, but it wouldn’t acknowledge my user name. I’m visiting from John Frye’s. Thanks for your comment over there.

    Good point. I agree. The Holy Spirit must be understood as a key player in the theodrama of God’s redeeming mission to the whole world. That which is emerging may need to seriously reconsider.
    Greg

  3. Progressive Christian Blogger on April 14th, 2007 12:33 pm

    I think you might be misreading the Pneumatology of Emergent. I think that Emergent is full (not exclusively) of Evangelicals that are now being better educated about modern theology. Because of that, they are no longer holding to the ancient anthropomorphic view of the holy spirit as a “being” or “ghost” that does stuff to and for us, but rather as a attitude or spirit of mind that we are asked to take on as our own attitude which transforms us. This is not a rejection or watering down of Pneumatology, but instead it is just a natural evolution of thought from an ancient worldview toward a more realistic current worldview.

    I think it is key for us to make that shift in world view so that we can start talking about the holy spirit more. It is critical that we discuss it, but as long as it is views as a “being” then it is going to be awkward and pretty much limits in educated discussions outside of the 3rd world or the deep south where that type of view is accepted.

  4. markvans on April 14th, 2007 12:47 pm

    Progressive Christian: I get it…but I don’t like it. This depersonalizing of the Holy Spirit may appeal to a modern theologically liberal mindset, but it isn’t Trinitarian and it is often embraced, in my not very humble opinion, unreflectively by many emerging church folks. And I’m not calling my fellow emergers unreflective in general here. I have been genuinely excited to be surrounded by such a thoughtful group of people. But when it comes to pneumatology, I’ve been disappointed.

    Spencer Burke seemed to take the approach you’re suggesting and I think it was a profound mistake. You can say it is an enlightened moving away from an anthropomorphized view of the Holy Spirit, but to me it is the moving away from the personhood of the Holy Spirit. I have BIG problems…HUGE, GIGANTIC, MONDO problems with this sort of idea:

    …they are no longer holding to the ancient anthropomorphic view of the holy spirit as a “being” or “ghost” that does stuff to and for us, but rather as a attitude or spirit of mind that we are asked to take on as our own attitude which transforms us. This is not a rejection or watering down of Pneumatology, but instead it is just a natural evolution of thought from an ancient worldview toward a more realistic current worldview.

    Why do I have a problem? It isn’t because I want to maintain the idea of the Holy Spirit as a ghost that does stuff to and for us. I definitely think our understanding of the Spirit needs to be more panentheistic. However, to say the Spirit is an “attitude” that we need to embrace to experience transformation is really lame. I’m sorry for being such an ass about it, but you’ve struck a major nerve. It may be more “realistic” but it moves away from the profoundly terrifying image of a Triune God, whose perichoretic inter-penetrating relations establish God’s very Being, and whose outpouring of love establishes the very essence of the Universe. This very same Triune God calls us, in Christ, by the Spirit, and for the Father to partake of divinity. We the Emerging Church can’t drift away from that. End personal diatribe.

  5. markvans on April 14th, 2007 1:07 pm

    Let me just clarify somethings:

    1) I don’t wish to deride emerging thinkers too much on this. I think there are lots of different thoughts about the Spirit. It just hasn’t gotten nearly enough play time.

    2) I think most emerging folks are fiercely orthodox when it comes to the personhood of the Spirit. But there are folks like Burke out there that challenge this. I think that is a mistake.

    3) It is unwise and incorrect to equate cutting edge theology with a depersonalization of the Spirit. This is perhaps true of process thinkers and some deconstructionists, but not everyone. In fact, some thinkers are pushing deeper into Trinitarian thought.

    4) I am interested in ways of articulating the Spirit (and Trinity) that move away from clumsy anthropomorphizing. But we can’t through out personhood and relationality in the process.

    5) Finally, we can’t simply dismiss Pentecostals as we go deeper into our own elite theological bubbles. The theology being done from the margins among the people is perhaps WAY more exciting and real than the stuff being done at Yale or Tubingen (or whatever Western elite school one could imagine).

  6. Progressive Christian Blogger on April 14th, 2007 2:23 pm

    What’s wrong with not being Trinitarian? I couldn’t think of a better idea to deconstruct. Maybe strict theism or substitutionary atonement are equally in need of deconstruction but at the heart of those ideas is this trinity idea that clouds perspective.

    Having said that, I do feel that Pneumatology is important but only if taken seriously and not in this anthropomorphic way. Being transformed by taking on the compassionate character of Jesus is essential and often overlooked or trivialized by the overly literal interpretation in Evangelical theology.

    Thanks for your post here. Even though we disagree about the metaphysical issues I do agree with your general message.

  7. markvans on April 14th, 2007 5:22 pm

    I think our differences of perspective here such that I don’t feel like it would be useful for me to try to woo you into embracing a full, robust, Trinitarian understanding. I take slight issue with your suggestion that “anthropomorphic” treatments of the Spirit aren’t a serious as the perspective you’re offering. I’m very serious about this stuff, but I’m not interested in tossing out the Trinity; nor am I interested in pursuing a purely ethical approach to Jesus (though his ethics are, of course, of extreme importance for me).

    Changing the subject a bit…To me, the most helpful voices for a new pneumatology out there include Amos Yong, LeRon Shults, and John Zizioulas. I’m sure I could think of more if I sat down and thought for a while, but those are the names that come to mind. Does anyone know of any other names I should add to this list?

  8. ron on April 16th, 2007 1:22 am

    Hey Mark, I guess I could be called a emerging/post-charismatic in a Pentecostal community. I feel like I’m suffering from some kind of weird bi-polar disorder. It would be nice if there was an emergence between the two…they have alot ot offer each other.

  9. espiritu paz on April 19th, 2007 5:55 pm

    Ugh! I don’t like 5.
    Being different should never be a goal.

  10. markvans on April 19th, 2007 6:03 pm

    Hmmm…I don’t think you did the extra hard work of clicking through to my previous post. What I mean by “be different” is:

    On one hand you need to realize how similar your church may be to the churches you criticize. Keep trying to move towards faithfulness–be a reformation which constantly reforms. On the other hand, allow yourself to be different from culture. Sometimes our quest for relevance can lead us to stand with culture in areas in which we ought to be prophetic. Following Jesus isn’t cool. And the church shouldn’t strain to be either.

  11. espiritu paz on April 29th, 2007 10:08 pm

    Okay, I stand well chided.

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