There is something wonderfully exciting happening across the globe. This past weekend I attended the Emerging Church Conference hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation. While the conference did not answer all my questions about the Emerging Church, I realized why I still have so many questions. As one speaker suggested, it would be better to describe what is happening as “the church emerging” since this conversation is simply trying to articulate what is happening around the globe. It is something that is happening as we speak, not something that can be well defined and described.
Let me set the stage. The conference as organized by a Catholic group that stresses the contemplative life and a life devoted to social justice. The speakers included Evangelicals, Episcopalians and Catholics. The conference sold out with nearly 1,000 in attendance and was webcast around the world. There was every age, every denomination, and every state along with friends from around the world. This is the picture of the church Emerging. It is a church beyond denominational affiliation. I personally attended the conference with a seventy year old Roman Catholic friend who has contributed significantly to my spirituality over the years. As Shane Claiborne (one of my favorite authors) said, “The goal is to harmonize not homogenize.” There was such beauty in our diversity and the entire conference celebrated the beauty that each tradition has contributed to Christianity. The tree in the photo was the backdrop on the stage throughout the conference and it beautifully illustrates our kinship.
I think this image is particularly powerful for me because of the journey that has shaped me. I grew up un-churched, came to faith in Christ in an ELCA Lutheran Church at the age of 26, served on the staff of a non-denominational Evangelical church for many years, went to a Baptist Seminary, am a member of a Methodist church and have received much of my spiritual direction and formation from Catholic Saints both living and deceased. I am the product of this new way of experiencing the faith and I see the beauty in every tradition.
What I learned from the conference is that the Christian churches can be divided into roughly four quadrants; Evangelical, liturgical, social action, and Charismatic/Pentecostal. All of these ways of doing church have value and each contributes to our faith formation, but God is far bigger than our human constructs. No faith or combination of faith traditions can fully grasp the mystery of God. God is far bigger than our dogmas and doctrines. This conversation is not seeking to build a new “denomination” but is simply recognizing that our old denominational boxes have been expanded because we have come to see that all Christian traditions have value. We heard from an Evangelical who has rediscovered the richness of the monastic tradition and has started an intentional community built on this understanding. I met an Episcopal priest who does bible studies in bars in her city because she recognizes the hunger people have for a deeper understanding of God. I met a Roman Catholic woman who sounded more like an evangelical in her call to connect young people to the gospel through on-line communities. What I saw in all these participants is the same spirit that gave birth to Embrace; a willingness to carry the message beyond the walls of the church into the lives of people outside the walls.
Before this conference I was not sure how Embrace could be a part of this conversation. However, I found that one of the four foundational practices being championed through this conversation is social justice and in particular “care of the poor”. I have no desire to “start” an emerging church. However, I do feel called to help the church in Richmond “emerge” from behind the walls and simply live the gospel by living as Christ did; among the poor and oppressed in our world and to do so by uniting the entire body around that mission.
The one thing that was echoed in every one of our sessions was the need to return to Jesus as the center of our faith; to stop worshipping dotrinal formulas, the church, or even the bible. The goal is not to grow “the church” but advance the Kingdom and the Kingdom is now, on this earth, as we seek to bring heaven to our deeply broken humanity. We do this as we seek to follow God’s will through prayer and contemplation, as we share the teachings of Christ, as we build true authentic communities where all are welcome and loved, and as we fight for justice in the world. Those four foundational practices with the person of Jesus Christ found in the four gospels as our guide is the foundation of the Emerging Church conversation as it was explained to me.
There are many voices making contributions to this conversation and as would be expected, others are adding to and taking away from this understanding but from what I saw this week, the vast majority of people engaged in this conversation are simply seeking to live in a way that is consistent with their understanding of the Christ we find in the gospels. For many, this looks much like the Acts 2 church with a return to small gatherings of followers as a means of living out the faith in community. My prayer is that I too will be free to live in this simple way and will find fellow Christians who truly seek to live the incarnation in radical and simple ways. I am not sure where this desire will lead me personally but professionally I was encouraged and affirmed by the sisters and brothers I met on this journey. I felt at home for the first time in a long time. It was a beautiful experience to realize that all over this world the church is emerging!
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” John 17:20-22