The Emergent Movement’s big failure

dragonfly1Let us forever remember the words of Henry Adams, Chaos is the way of nature, but order is the dream of man.

As I’ve written over the last fifteen years, another word for chaos is change. Change is the norm for the twenty-first century, where equilibrium is a constantly moving target. Hence, we all must change, personally and professionally, in order to adapt, for the rules in a world of change are different from those in an ordered universe. The Internet is the backbone of postmodernity, the single most misunderstood and misapplied term of this century, and something about which I’ve been writing since the beginning. When Kevin Kelly wrote his seminal essay “We are the Web” in 2003, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. We — the people — ARE the Web.

I used to write about media and proclaimed that the original sin of newspapers — the one that led to the downfall of the whole bloody institution — was reinventing themselves for the Web in their own image. This was a dreadful and costly mistake, for the Internet is not an infrastructure for mass marketing. All the terms associated with the newspaper industry come from processes and systems created for the printing and selling of newspapers to a mass, including the advertising that sustained the whole thing. It is both understandable and reasonable to assume this was the mission when forced to face the disruptive nature of the Web, but it missed what’s really been taking place: a dramatic retooling of the levers of commerce that vastly outperform the two fundamentals of mass marketing: reach and frequency. This is a message that newspapers rejected without serious consideration.

As I shift my focus from media to religion, I’m finding this same dynamic — identically — occurring within the institution of religion — Christianity in particular.

The last fifteen years have seen a ton of books by authors representing a movement that’s called the emerging church. “Emergers” are those changelings — such as dragonflies and butterflies — that live half their lives in one world and then “emerge,” transform to creatures who live in another. The movement is a response by a group of people to what they identify as the failings of “the church” in a postmodern world. The view that the church has failed extends far beyond this group, but Emergents (a subset of the emerging church), led by Brian McLaren, are the most popular and organized.

Their view, however, of postmodernism as a cultural era is badly limited, and this opens the door for the same error that newspapers made: you cannot reinvent church for the postmodern era by doing so in the modern era format. The Emergent Movement has planted church buildings and created new hierarchies, neither of which belong in the same sentence with “postmodern.” Despite attempts at adjusting theology and rules that better fit diverse interests in the twenty-first century, they lock themselves into a top-down paradigm designed to serve an archaic model of western culture. This will be its downfall. In fact, a well-known New York literary expert told me a few weeks ago that publishers are already backing away from these books, because they aren’t selling as well as they once did.

Does a nymph emerge from the water as a new nymph? No, it’s a different creature. Does a caterpillar emerge from its chrysalis as a new caterpillar? No, it’s a butterfly. Both of these emergers can actually fly! There’s nothing even remotely similar to their former state. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Many Christian writers will view the decline of the Emergent Movement simply as God “rejecting” heresy, but that is shallow and self-serving. There will be postmodern Christianity, but modernist Christianity — based on tradition — will continue also. One doesn’t “replace” the other; it simply modifies the old to better fit the culture. We’ll let culture figure out which one better fits.

So how does one reinvent church for postmodernity? It’s an important question that will take many years to better understand and adapt. It will likely happen long after I’m gone, but here are ten thoughts to begin the conversation:

  1. It will be horizontal, and God, the Holy Spirit will be our focus. This is, after all, the third branch of the Trinity and what Jesus departed to give us. It is a constant here, and a constant now, and it is spread out across the limitations of time and distance. The net facilitates this, just as it has disrupted or already transformed all of life in the twenty-first century.
  2. Community will be redefined. From the very beginning of the Christian church, assembling together has been geography-driven (“the church at Corinth,” etc.). The net overcomes geography, and communities of interest are springing up everywhere. In internet parlance, these are called “niche verticals,” and they are rewriting how and where we consume information. Facebook, for example, redefines community in many ways.
  3. Its mission will be “here and now” focused. The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to Sunday morning, and neither will be postmodern Christianity. This will require, for example, rethinking worship, for the chill bumps of Sunday morning contemporary worship are confined only to those in attendance. We’ll also have to rethink the Eucharist and how that can be administered to those gathered in a networked world.
  4. It will be participatory and self-governing. There can be no FORMAL hierarchical organizational structure, for it is the doorway to mischief and THE principle objection of modernity. It is sloppy thinking to believe that any postmodern “institution” can be top-down. God the Father still exists, but not as the be-all model for the church. This is why I always point to AA when people ask what a postmodern institution looks like. It shouldn’t function, according to traditional management theory, but it does.
  5. There will be no “rules;” a common need will drive us. Absent an enforcement authority, there can be no rules, but as noted above, that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos. The word chaos, as defined by modernist thinking, is abhorrent and cannot be permitted, but postmodernity sees past that and embraces the idea that common purpose and accompanying manifestos can keep us together.
  6. It will be collaborative and inclusive. No one can be dismissed based solely on those attributes that influence people coming together in the natural. It’s a lot harder for me to dismiss or dehumanize another person when I’m not sitting next to them, where they might “rub off” on me.
  7. It will be connected. It’s unlikely this connectivity will be universal, for there’s still that “birds of a feather” thing, even though the flocking together is no longer governed by vicinity. Obvious differences will still appear and have to be considered, but although people, like snowflakes, are all different, we’re still all human beings, and the ability to independently deal with our humanity will be our core motivator.
  8. Blogs will be more important than books. Think about it. If connectivity is our form, then the need for daily bread is part and parcel of that connection. Blogs were created by the network’s originators as the principal tool by which connected people (the Great Horizontal) pass along information. This innovation did away with the role of gatekeeper by displaying such information in reverse chronological order, putting new entries at the top of the distribution flow. The whole thing was designed for aggregation across a constantly moving timeline. Online information displays this way, including social media outlets. The postmodern church will be the same way.
  9. The task of members will be to be more human. This differs from the illusionary task of modernity’s church, which is to help people be more spiritual in order to gain a future goal. This, it turns out, is not the real challenge of Life, for the presence of the Holy Spirit assumes we are already spiritual, otherwise the connection would be impossible. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not down the road somewhere. This alters the command and control mechanism of the modernist church’s hierarchy, because it no longer solely possesses the ability to determine and grant one’s eternity. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of that in the here and now.
  10. It will be culturally disruptive. Christianity’s ability to impact culture has always been through forcibly herding citizens into the pen of its laws and order. What we see in our world today is all the evidence we need to question the morality of such, and this, too, is one of the energies empowering postmodernism. The lasting way to influence culture is from the inside-out, and that will be the righteous consequence of postmodern Christianity. Joining our connected community will be based on the attraction it represents, not the mass marketing of some special lifestyle, guarantee of prosperity, or entryway into the gates of heaven. It will be knowledge that we are able to thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually within the chaos of constant change.

We cannot overlook the development of new technologies, such as virtual reality and holograms, tools which will naturally advance the network and demand our continued willingness to adapt to postmodernity. Moreover, we must always consider the Evolving User Paradigm, because sophistication in the use of the Web grows with every day that a person uses it.

Please look at the above and think about what you might be able to add to it. Don’t be like the newspapers that rejected change, because they were so enamored with their existing model that they couldn’t imagine it would ever fall apart.

Comments

  1. Vince Crunk says

    Interesting Terry, but I don’t think I understand yet. Where does this leave existing physical churches? What about the role of the pastor? If AA is a model, then is this also more Quaker-like without a specific leader? I think my local church is being slowly and incrementally reinvented by a young new pastor but I doubt this is what you mean.

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