January 18, 2006
Unbundling Christianity: An Attempt to Define the Emerging Church
Since this blog launched last October one of the alluring conversations has been the nature and definition of the "emerging church." The debate started when James McDonald declared why he is not emerging, gained volume with my report on Brian McLaren's seven layers of the emergent conversation, and has continued to surface through many of Ur's entries.
To the frustration of its critics, and to the delight of its advocates, the emerging church has successfully resisted boundaries, categories, and labels. Such devices are seen by emergent's adherents as the shackles of modernity used to confine and control what should be free and fluid. To an increasingly suspicious culture even the desire to established discernable boundaries is met with alarm. Such categorization can only serve two purposes - either exclusion (the judging of others determined to be unlike me), or exploitation (the targeting of others for my gain).
So, it is with some trepidation that I venture into the forbidden territory of definitions with admittedly less experience and knowledge of the emergent landscape than many of you reading this post.
My reason for entering is simple - curiosity. Most of the outspoken opponents of the emerging church have leveled the same criticism. They accuse it of being merely a deconstructionist movement - deconstructing modern church forms, theology, and strategies without constructing valid (i.e. modern/rational) alternatives. However, I have a hard time believing a purely deconstructionist movement would endure and gain momentum as the emergent conversation has done. Likewise, if the emergent church were not constructing some alternative theology/philosophy of ministry why would so many opponents feel threatened?
So, curiosity has led me to ask - is it possible to identify the emerging church by what it is constructing instead of simply by what it is deconstructing? Of course any effective process of differentiation requires both, so my definition must include some discussion of deconstruction. But, rather than using that inflammatory and hopelessly postmodern terminology, I prefer the word "unbundling" to describe what the emerging church is achieving.
In marketing bundling is the practice of packaging several items together as a single product. For example, being nearly bald I really don't need conditioner for what remains of my hair. However, if I want to use a certain shampoo I am required to also purchase conditioner because the manufacturer has bundled them together. Bundling is a strategy that forces people to purchase more than they want or need by limiting their options.
The modern church is characterized by bundling. Modernity's insistance on categories and boundaries has meant certain theological traditions have been bundled with certain worship styles, forms, and modes of ministry. For example, in the mid 20th century a progressive view of social justice was typically bundled together with liberal theology and traditional worship or liturgy style. In the 1980s and 90s a serious commitment to reaching non-Christians was often bundled together with conservative theology, contemporary worship forms, and program driven ministries.
The prevalence of bundling in the modern church is obvious by the clearly defined categories by which churches identified themselves. In 1987 if someone identified their church as "seeker-driven" we all knew what that meant theologically, aesthetically, and culturally. Just as everyone knew what "traditional," "mainline," and "Pentecostal" meant. Today these categories are far more ambiguous.
In my experience, the most significant contribution of the emergent movement is the unbundling of the Western church. The assumption that certain theological traditions, forms of worship, and modes of ministry must be packaged together is no longer valid to those with an emergent disposition. These church leaders are looking over the vast landscape of the Church, whose horizon reaches 2000 years back and whose expanse is wider than any single tradition, and they are questioning the validity of modern American evangelicalism as a bundled entity.
Instead, the emergent movement is creating a new ministry paradigm where unbundled elements of the church can be reconfigured into previously unseen forms of Christian community and mission. For example, some emergent communities are combining conservative Protestant theology with Roman Catholic and high church forms of worship - two things previously kept in separate bundles. Likewise, we are seeing a progressive social and political agenda no longer strictly bundled with liberal theology. The fact that Rick Warren and Bill Hybles are addressing poverty and AIDS in Africa reveals that unbundling is even occurring in the flagship of modern Christianity - the megachurch.
The combining of traditions and theologies estranged in the modern era may also explain why emerging church leaders hold strong affections for the spiritual formation movement. An older friend once asked me why young church leaders were so drawn to Dallas Willard at a conference. After all, Willard had none of the style, flash, or youth often associated with the emerging church. But Willard, like Richard Foster, Renovar?, and other pillars of the spiritual formation movement, do draw richly from many church traditions previously not bundled with evangelicalism. They defy categorization, and represent the reuniting of Christian spirituality. They share the value of reconfiguration with the emerging church.
Perhaps no one personifies this better than Tony Jones. Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent - so his credentials as an emerging church leader are indisputable. He is also the author of The Sacred Way, a book that explores the spiritual disciplines of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions and then offers suggestions for how to apply them in our cultural context. Jones openly celebrates that we "live in a time of unprecedented cross-pollination" in the church. He, and other emergent leaders, personify McLaren's principles of generous orthodoxy.
If we take this practice of unbundling/reconfiguring as the defining characteristic of the emerging church then perhaps the movement is misnamed. The dictionary defines "emerge" as "to come out of." It's a word that emphasizes what the emerging church is moving away from - it's a word rooted, as critics have noted, in deconstructing the modern church. A more constructive word, I believe, is "merge." It is defined as "to join together different elements, mix, or combine." Perhaps a better name for what we are experiencing is the "merging church" as previously estranged elements of Christianity are unbundled from modernity and reunited into endless permutations of mission and community.