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Notes on the Emergent Church

by Jeremy Sierra

While working on an article for Trinity News about new churches popping up in Brooklyn, I visited several communities (Bushwick Abbey, Not So Churchy, Parables, and St. Lydia’s) that are sometimes grouped under the rubric, “emergent.” However, as I posed the question—What is the emergent church?—to priests and pastors, and even a graduate student in sociology, the answer turned out to be somewhat beside the point.

The term “emergent” is often used to refer to new communities experimenting with community and worship, eschewing some of the trappings of traditional worship. It is, however, in danger of being overused and emptied of its meaning (as one person who said, it’s a “marketing term that has collapsed on itself and is a parody at this point”).

Kerlin Richter, a priest and founder of Bushwick Abbey, did not identify with the term, and neither did Mieke Vandersall, pastor and founder of Not So Churchy, nor Ben McKalehan, pastor and founder of Parables. The churches grew out of a desire to experiment with community and liturgy, rather than a desire to join a movement.

Bowie Snodgrass, who started a small community called Transmission, has long been interested in the movement but prefers the term “fresh expressions.”

The church has always been experimenting and changing, she said. In this sense, the emergent movement is simply a name for the new forms the church is taking to respond to its context.

I asked James Skinner, a graduate student in sociology who studies these things, but he was careful in answering me (my impression is that it’s kind of like trying to define religion, which sociologists have struggled to define for as long as there have been sociologists).

The emergent church is more of a movement than a static organization, he said. It emerges from existing traditions and churches (hence the name).

So the term is relative. Calling a church “emergent” only makes sense in relation to other traditions and communities. Otherwise, we’d just call it a church.

There are different strands of emergent churches in New York and around the country. Some of them “haunt the church,” as Joel Avery, a seminarian at Yale Divinity School, puts it. They raise questions that the church is afraid to answer (one of these was a temporary meeting called ikonNYC started by theologian Peter Rollins, which Avery was involved in). These emergent churches are often in dialogue with the more evangelical, conservative branch of Christianity.

The churches I visited for the original article are responding to mainline denominations, and those mainline churches are more flexible theologically than the newer evangelical churches. That means that these communities can emphasize different aspects of Christianity and experiment with liturgy, without losing their relationship to the larger denomination.

By the time I finished writing the story, I realized that while “emergent” can be a useful term to refer to the many experiments happening across the country, it has accumulated some unhelpful connotations and baggage, often being equated with “hipsters” in skinny jeans, people experimenting for the sake of experimentation, or a few celebrity theologians (Rob Bell, Tony Jones, etc.).

Like “hipster,” the term “emergent” is sometimes used to dismiss people. Also like most people labeled hipsters, those who are labeled emergent are acting authentically. It’s not a show. Hipsters genuinely like their skinny jeans. Those in the emergent church genuinely want to see where they can find God.

These communities are experimenting in response to their context, thinking outside the traditional structures of the church, just as communities have being doing for a couple thousand years and will continue for many more, no matter what you call them.

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