Jesus didn’t have a statement of faith – and neither does the emergent church movement.
“Emergent aims to facilitate a conversation among persons committed to living out faithfully the call to participate in the reconciling mission of the biblical God. Whether it appears in the by-laws of a congregation or in the catalog of an educational institution, a ‘statement of faith’ tends to stop conversation,” writes Tony Jones in his new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.
Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village in Minnesota and one of the leaders in the emergent church movement. He admits it’s hard to describe emergent and pin down exactly what emergents believe, and that really is the point of emergent. “Like the electronica music of the 1980s and 1990s, the emergent church is a mash-up of old and new, of theory and practice, of men and women, and of mainline, evangelical, and, increasingly Roman Catholic Christians,” he writes.
Emergents embrace the idea that theology is an organic, living thing – not something that can be set in stone in doctrines and dogmas. They believe they serve God best when they are in relationship with others and in conversation with others about theological matters that denominations and educational institutions believe were decided decades and centuries ago.
Because of this “mash-up” of old and new, and their penchant for continuing theological dialogue over theological issues like the theory of atonement and others, the emergent movement is decidedly at odds with denominationalism that dominates the mainline church.
“Bureaucracy is bad for the gospel,” Jones told Whosoever in a recent interview. “It made a lot of sense in the 19th and 20th centuries after the Industrial Revolution with the arise of big – big nation-state governments, big universities, big multi-national corporations, big NGOs and non-profits. The church understandably wanted to play on that ballfield so they said, ‘Let’s gather up all of our posse and plant a big headquarters in Chicago or Louisville. Let’s have a big office building. We’ll have a bunch of bureaucrats in cubicles. We’ll call them mid level judicatories or bishops or district superintendents.’ It was a move that was in no way theological, but purely cultural. Now culture has changed.”
And those big bureaucracies that churches have built are not nimble enough to change with the culture. While other businesses and non-profits have reinvented themselves to succeed in a global market where small and flexible is becoming the rule, churches lumber along, burdened by its hierarchy and reams of rules and regulations.
This is what lies at the heart of the church’s inability to deal with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons within its midst. The rules and regulations, the doctrines and the dogmas have become so cumbersome – the bureaucracy so thick – that the true needs of the people cannot be addressed in a timely fashion.
So, can GLBT people find a home in emergent? As will all things emergent, the answer is, “That depends.”
“If you’re willing to sit at a table with people who don’t even let women be elders or preach in their churches,” Jones said. “If your ideology is more important than your commitment to conversation you probably will feel uncomfortable in emergent. We’ve worked very hard to make it a place that’s safe for people all across the spectrum. I answer the same way to a conservative fundamentalist pastor: ‘If you’re not capable of having a respectful theological conversation with a lesbian then no, you shouldn’t come to emergent.'”
Some GLBT people may take offense at such a statement, and over at Whosoever’s Godcast page, a discussion has taken place about how someone from our community would be welcomed in emergent. To some, it sounds as if Jones is asking us to go back into the closet to be part of emergent, but I don’t hear it that way.
To me, it sounds as though emergent is fertile ground for GLBT people to begin to till. It is a place where people are dedicated to relationship and reconciliation. We cannot advance as GLBT people in the church without both of those. While many emergent churches may, at their core, be conservative, even fundamentalist, in their theological beliefs, if they are willing to be in relationship with GLBT people who appear in their midst, then this may be the best place to find new allies.
Certainly, we cannot go in with guns blazing – demanding acceptance and affirmation up front. We have to enter emergent with our ideology safely tucked in our back pockets – ready to form true relationships and seek true reconciliation with those we find in emergent gatherings. Conservative and fundamentalist mainline churches are dedicated to conserving their doctrines and dogmas and have little interest in relationship, let alone reconciliation, with GLBT people. Emergent is a whole different arena where minds are more open, hearts are more welcoming.
In the final chapter of his book, Jones profiles churches that are dealing with the issue of GLBT acceptance in the church.
“At the Church of the Apostles a church affiliated with both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, a young married couple from conservative Bible college sit next to gay man. They have agreed to hold in abeyance their own particular theological understandings of homosexuality and the church and live together in this community and work it out in community,” Jones said.
James, the gay man in question told Jones: “It was really important for me to find a place where I didn’t necessarily have to be accepted for being gay – whatever gay means and how they look at me – but at least to be part of the discussion and still feel welcome to be a part and not looked down on. [ ] I have the most amazing friendships here, and that’s what keeps me.”
That is the heart of the emergent movement as I understand it – those friendships, those relationships that lead to reconciliation. Don’t expect the emergent church to ever say that they are pro- or anti-gay. Such definitive statements are not part of the emergent ethos. Instead, expect to be welcomed as you are, but to have your ideas and your beliefs challenged. In that challenge comes growth – not just for yourself, but for the church as a whole. If we stop engaging one another theologically and stop engaging God, then our faith will surely die. The emergent movement is offering new life – not just to GLBT people – but to a withering church.
As Jones said, Emergent Christians are trying to find places where God is active in the world and get on board. We are welcome on the journey.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.