In the first part of this article (found in Fuller Seminary’s “Theology, News and Notes” Fall 2008 issue) I explore the similarities between the Emergent Presbyterians and the character Harold Crick, played by Will Farrell in the movie Stranger than Fiction. Crick overhears his narrator describing his “imminent death” and reacts with dismay screaming out loud, “What? What? Hey! HELLOOO! What? Why? Why MY death? HELLO? Excuse me? WHEN?”. In the PC(USA) Book of Order we are reminded that the church is itself “the provisional demonstration of… the new reality revealed in Jesus Christ [which] is the new humanity…” (G-3.0200 italics added). The church is “called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.” (G-3.0400). While I am a minister in the PC(USA) I have only come to Presbyterianism in the past 10 years. Newer to this whole thing, I tend to deal a little differently with the bad news of our imminent death. I get to be like the viewer in the film, and less like Harold Crick. I guess you could say I see it coming. But that doesn’t keep me from stretching into the life that is mine, and leaning into the script with all the more courage and passion. By the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), Harold gets to read the script. He sees the poetry in his own ending and he is faced with the choice of leaning into that masterpiece with his very life. And this, I think, is what Mainline Emergents are doing everywhere.
I was asked by Ryan Bolger co-author of Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, to write a theological reflection on the Presbyterian perspective of the oxymoron of “mainline emergence” for Fuller Seminary’s “Theology News and Notes.” I have to begin by prefacing that a similar phenomena is happening in other religions including Judaism as well as many other denominations including our ecclesiastical siblings the Disciple, the PCA, and the EPC. Perhaps discovering others in this Emergence will be more an opportunity for reconciliation and integration and less an opportunity for division amidst an already small tribe. This, at least, has been the fruit of my friendship with Emergent Village, a generative friendship of Missional leaders of all stripes, ideologies, and denominations.
I had the privilege to host a conversation with Emergent Village at Columbia Theological Seminary in January of 2007 about the topic of Mainline Emergence and we saw over 400 folks turn out to hear from Mainline Practitioners (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Luther, and Cooperative Baptists) as well as some of the usual suspects in the Emerging church. From that experience, my own encounter with many of my co-laborers at Presbymergent, and the various mainliners I’ve met through Emergent Village, I laid out a brief character sketch of the Presbyterian Emergents as I’ve seen them.
This is pretty liquid, and perhaps the list will give us/y’all at Presbymergent something to react with and build upon as we explore this new frontier. Emergents cultivate communities of hope:
- As Designers: adapting Order according to the in-breaking world of God, asking, “How does this space, polity, or liturgy function?”
- As Translators: integrating the good news arriving amidst both church culture and wider culture.
- As Joiners: Incarnationally involved in a context “already in progress” toward God’s reign.
- As Cultivators: tilling open space for alternatives to volunteer themselves.
- As Artisans: instead of chasing “fads,” deeply acquainted with contexts and media at hand and fashioning them into beautiful new visions.
- As Critics: humble about the socializing dangers of self-referential order.
- As Agitators: Mixing oil and water to reveal new gifts from the spirit as well as artificial preservatives or expired ingredients from yesterday’s faithful.
The Designer, Translator, Joiner, and Cultivator are explored in the Part One of this article in Fuller’s site. This online Part Two will explore the last three of these profiles: Artisan, Critic, and Agitator. I will then continue a discussion of the article and Bolger’s overall findings at my blog, Church as Art.
Mainline Emergents are utilizing much more than simply their classic training to bring new possibilities to bear. Like artisans, they take the material context with utmost seriousness. The new reality, to which the church points, includes more than us, and more than our classic tradition. But pointing beyond ourselves is an awkward posture. Such pointing requires the nimbleness and flexibility to program with the goal of pouring our resources and imagination into God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. Yet all too often the traditional church (institutions of all sorts, mainline and evangelical) has reversed the worship and service goals of the church, attempting to pour God’s heavenly kingdom into the church. Clear examples of this are in the “target market” approaches to style in worship, fellowship, and educational programming. In these approaches worship leaders are charged to “tell” a message in a certain “style.” Artisans, on the other hand, rarely set out to “tell” something, or to copy a “style.” Day after day they pour their hope and discovery into the everyday mediums of acrylics or photo gels, and they allow the materials of wood or granite to speak to them.
In Emergence, “stylistic” differences are not new genres employed in an effort to become more relevant or progressive. After all, genres don’t come into existence to advance markets. Genres emerge naturally as artists build deeper relationships with their contexts. Romanticism gave way to Impressionism and Impressionism to Cubism and Cubism to Post-Impressionism because the changing context of these guilds required artisans to reach for authentic expression of the world’s story or their story. Without the Great Depression, the rise of the American tycoon, Marxism, and the Mexican revolutions- there would have been no Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo. And the Art of Emerging Christian Community is similar: without the Jewish practices of Pentecost and the pluralistic Hellenization of the Greco-Roman Empire, the birthday of the church would not entail the culturally diverse cast that we readily associate with the Pentecost. Without the Athenian statue to Zeus reading, “In him we move and live and have our being” Paul may never have quoted this to teach the preeminence of our Lord Jesus. Emerging “styles” are as such, they emerge from a particular social context. Everything is in play.
The Way of Jesus is incarnation. Being the church has always involved the gospel en-fleshed in the context already in motion. Church is, by definition, contemporary with culture. Without the Gothenburg press, the emergence of the nation state, and the academic progress of the humanities, much of what we now call the Reformation would not be. These disciplines and shifts could not have emerged in a vacuum. Why is it, then, that we uncritically accept as authoritative so-called Presbyterian forms–be they parliamentary majority-rules processes, or per capita giving, or 16th century academic robes serving to model ‘minister as teaching elder?’ What if these very things are also meant for adaptation amidst an open-source, globalizing, conceptual age? Why can the intuitions of our various traditions not be recycled, put to use again, for today’s task of pointing to the new reality promised in Jesus the Christ? Emergence in the Mainline happens when churches give our resources and forms to the Spirit and receive them back as gifts for those ahead of us.
Artists are often their own worst critics. A finished work is open to scrutiny and is always something to be improved upon. And this will, perhaps, be the inevitable challenge that awaits Presbyterian Emergence. All too often I have watched seminary colleagues argue about their fixed commitments to forms or ideologies in utilitarian ways out of an unexamined commitment to a former precedent and to the exclusion of God’s future generosity to the World. Whether it be designated funding, membership, seminary support, or college ministries the conversation on the presbytery and General Assembly floor is waged using Tradition as the highest trump card. This polarizing self-referential practice will constrict our denominational institution until we suffocates.
Tangled in disagreement between the fixed meanings of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterians are becoming complicity committed to a fixed Order as our identity. In such cases we no longer consider ourselves as provisional, we no longer point beyond ourselves to a new reality in Christ. And so the Presbyterian Tradition has become the ultimate trump card, and whoever is holding it redefines it to her or his own advantage. We forget to learn from our words and the Word. And we forget that the very context and materials to which we appeal have changed. Just look at the difference between the sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church we reacted to during the Reformation and its practices, beliefs, and varied contexts today. Emergents are not arguing that Tradition is “old fashion,” “out of date,” or “irrelevant.” No, our argument concerns the way in which defensive appeals to Tradition functions.
In the previous half of this article I suggested that the work of architects and city planners known as adaptive reuse serve as a metaphor for our own work of faithfully ordering the nexus of word and sacrament. Lets return to the line of questioning from adaptive reuse, what does arguing from the precedence of tradition “do”? Such practices socialize us for something other than “faithfulness and usefulness… to God’s activity in the world” (G 3.0401c). Our arguments about precedent are generating a sub-culture, a people of a certain text–one that is past-tensed and that is self-preoccupied. Alternatively, Emergence attempts to draw upon the intuitions of our traditions to help us meet a coming culture by living in future tensed and others-focused ways.
The balance struck by this future tensed and other’s focused posture, is described in our Directory of Worship as simultaneously “consistent with God’s Word and open to the newness of God’s future” (W-3.1002). We aren’t going to bring back the balance between God’s word and God’s future as it was struck 50 or 300 year ago. We can only negotiate our calling “to a new openness” today, while being critical of “the possibilities and perils of [our] institutional forms” as it comes to us, as potentially perilous inventions are handed off from generation to generation, context to context. There is no pre-determined, auto-pilot, outsourced way “to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world” (G 3.0401c). It is our daily task.
This is also my caution to those who would like the Emergent movement to serve as yet another special interest group lobbying for a certain Presbyterian future. The very existence of Emerging Mainline communities and the alternative forms that preceded us serve as witnesses to the deconstructive character of the gospel introduced by Christ into culture. But, if perceived as renewal movement, Mainline Emergence will find itself dependent upon the very structure it must hold loosely.
Often, Mainline Emergents are agitators, in the best sense. Like the chef who mixes vintage vinegars and with heirloom oils to get just the right dressing, Mainline Emergents find themselves mixing two very different things to get the desired hybrid.
I mentioned earlier that new possibilities can be cultivated by making open spaces. While this may be the case, elements such as blank space, silence, and altering the expected can be risky business when good church-goers attend with the usual expectations. Agitation is not always a welcomed leadership characteristic.
During a year as designated pastor with a 45-year-old congregation exploring transformation, we drastically reshaped our worship space and our worship gathering. We set up all of our chairs to circle around a communion table, leadership was shared, and the week’s leaders sat with the congregation, we stretched into prayer postures we had learned through Chi Gong, we handed out sketch pads, and we provided times for discussion. The introduction of these practices and shapes to the worship gathering functioned by putting worship attendees in play in ways they had not been before. While these practices and shapes were deeply theological, they were also open and decentralized, and often very disorienting. One eighty-year-old sports buff–who confessed to me once that he was addicted to sports because “they were the one thing in the world that could completely change overnight”–said, after one such adapted worship gathering, “I’ve never sat in silence like that before… this gives me a lot to think about.” The mixture of the expected with the openness was an informative and yet disorienting agitation in the settled space of predictable worship forms.
I joined this congregation hoping that emergence and congregational revitalization could happen simultaneously. I was right, in part. They did happen simultaneously. But what I and the congregation’s leaders underestimated was the difference in leadership required to walk a congregation through taking up their crosses and at the same time encouraging them to discover new gifts. Every existing congregation is called to conversion, to daily take up their cross. And so the leadership of existing congregations must courageously stair death in the face, and resolve to give themselves away to God’s World, before any sort of transformation can be truly realized. If a congregation cannot admit their imminent death, they will be paralyzed by fear, like Harold Crick in the middle of the movie. Agitators intuitively push this limit and end up in new situations with blank canvases because of it.
Living into our provisional shape is risky business; it disappoints many who need mainline denominationalism to operate as stable and fixed. One example of this is a couple who wanted to celebrate their marriage during the Lord’s Day worship gathering. I met on several occasions with the couple as well as the worship committee to order the ceremony and the entire worship gathering for that day. The event, however, was intentionally decentralized. The “function” of the marriage ceremony was to join this couple in their promises before God and to enact the future of a promised humanity joined with God in Christ’s Way of fidelity and love. While the couple did not want me to sign the marriage license as an authority of the state, I did announce them as husband and wife after their shared vows, prayer, and the whole church community laid hands on them. However, a question arose shortly thereafter as to the marriage’s legitimacy, for I did not “pronounce” them man and wife using the phrase “by the authority vested in me by….”. This seemingly insignificant omission was disorienting for those who found comfort in an expected form, the posture of authoritative pronouncements. And yet our order is not to function as comfort but as openness to the Spirit’s guidance and God’s future.
A third example comes from the committee I mentioned in part one who have partnered with three emerging fellowships in the greater Atlanta area. In a desire to remain open to the possibilities of new ways of belonging to the denomination, the committee chose to use the language of midwifery and surrogate motherhood to describe our oversight. Our committee is reintroducing to “connectional Presbyterianism” the practices of conversation and co-learning. While the precedents of our Reformed intuitions are being lifted up we are also being forced by real ministry situations to address expired ingredients and artificial preservatives introduced to these precedents over the centuries. Old settled categories of membership, evangelism, and liturgy are being brought back into play. Agitation exposes these possibilities and, as such, they are the source of many growing pains.
For the sake of the world
The Presbyterian Emergents that I continue to work with and learn from have not ended up where they are as a career move. Instead, they have stepped into the imminent death that is the church’s and continued through to ways of seeking the Way of Jesus and translating the intuitions of Presbyterianism into the here-and-now. Our protagonist, Harold Crick, had to learn the same thing. He had to give up. After negotiating with his narrator, after reading the manuscript, he recognized and was inspired by the beauty of that future for which he was designed. He had the courage to step into his end and to live with courage and generosity.
For better or worse I speak in a Reformed tongue. I can’t help it, it is in my blood as far back as my Dutch ancestors. And after seminary and years of ministry in the PC(USA) I still imagine possible Presbyterian ways for emerging communities to intentionally order their contexts with practices as followers of Jesus. And I continue to find more folks who are doing the same. They are as varied as designers, translators, joiners, cultivators, artisans, critics, and agitators. I think that these are the Mainline Emergents: those hearing the Narrator tell us that our days are numbered, that our end is imminent, and yet adapting all we’ve been given to make a life in relationship with tradition and context out of love for God’s wider world.
Troy Bronsink makes a life with his wife and daughter in Capitol View, an inner-city neighborhood of Atlanta where he is a worship consultant, community organizer, singer-songwriter, and pastor. He speaks, writes, and consults with churches from churchasart: a mashup of emerging missionallity, spiritual formation, and the arts.
Troy is a contributing author to Baker Books’ Manifesto of Hope, a coordinating group member of Emergent Village and Presbymergent.org, a leader in the Emerging Church Committee of Greater Atlanta Presbytery, and organizer of conferences including Columbia Theological Seminary’s “Mainline Emergent/s” and Emergent Village’s “Brueggemann and the Bible.” Troy is a PC(USA) minister and has been an active part of this expression of Presbyterianism for ten years.
For the first part of this article visit Fuller Theology News and Notes. To read an interview with Troy Bronsink and Ryan Bloger about this and other Mainline Emergents visit Troy’s blog: www.churchasart.com.