The reason the movement is called "emergent" is that people from all walks of life and from all different church traditions are coming to the same realizations at the same time without having talked to one another first. Hence, emerge. Like lots of butterflies all at the same time.
So, with that mission in mind, I try to attend conferences that aren't labeled "emergent" as much as possible. Last weekend, I was able to attend the Friday session of the Seminary Consortium of Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE)
I was astonished that each of the three speakers in the three sessions I attended would have easily been identified as emergent if they were white, tall, and wore funky glasses. Instead two were African American and one was Asian. In a couple of weeks, they will be available for download online. I'll update you when that happens. But now, let me tell you about them.
First to speak was Otis Moss III. He's the current pastor at Barack Obama's church. His topic for the morning Bible study was the hip-hop church. He began by saying that the church has failed in reaching the post-modern, post-soul, technologically equipped generation. Sound familiar anyone? His text was Deuteronomy 34 and the first chapter of Joshua. These are the verses that talk about Moses passing leadership on to Joshua as he died so that the Jewish people who have a leader to take them into the Promised Land. The Joshua generation has never experienced slavery (speaking of both) or segregation (speaking of now) and so they come to God from a completely different direction.
Pastor Moss then went into a brilliantly succinct history of hip-hop, including dead-accurate renditions of Rapper's Delight and The Message. His point in educating his audience was to show how very glaringly different this generation is from generations that came before it. Why? "You cannot reach a Joshua generation with a Moses methodology." He also pointed out that Jesus is the best person at re-mixing, that is, taking a "song" that already exists and making it into something new. "You have heard it said . . . but I say . . ." A total re-mix. He said that we can choose to listen to "Amazing Grace" on 8-tracks, LPs, Cassettes, CDs or MP3s but your medium will affect who will listen to the music.
Overall, I felt like he could have gone a little further than simply saying that we have to package the gospel message in new wrapping. Actually, I asked a question to see whether he could go further than that and I was disappointed that he went a different direction in his answer. However, often when I wonder about whether racial reconciliation is possible in the emergent movement, I worry about the doctrinal and social conservatism of most African American churches. If the emergent movement is about creating a safe place to have a conversation about God since God is actually bigger than any words or cluster of words that we can use to describe her, this necessarily demolishes the idea that one has to agree to a list of "beliefs" about God in order to be a follower of Christ. But "right doctrine" is so central t traditional churches. I wanted to know if that was part of the wrapping that Pastor Moss was willing to change in order to show young people that God has been in their lives all along.
So, even if he wouldn't go that far that day, he did come out in favor of women being equal leaders in the church and extolled the virtues of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay Civil Rights leader who was most influential on Martin Luther King, Jr's commitment to non-violence. It's a start, right? A giant one, actually, in my book. To have over-turned traditional church doctrines forcing women into submissive roles and homosexuals into roles as permanent sinners (unlike the rest of us, of course) indicates a willingness to recognize that all of our doctrines are interpretations, and interpretations can change as we gain new knowledge.
The second session I attended was presented byRev. Soong Chan Rah and Dr. Velda Love, both of whom teach at North Park University. The first stated outcome on the flip chart for the session was, "Identify methods used that hold churches captive to Western Christian ideology." Woohoo! A major aspect of the emerging movement is recognizing that the traditions of the church were mostly formed in the last 500 years. This includes both styles of worship and doctrinal necessities like believing that Jesus had to die because a supposedly loving God was so angry with us that we were going to go to Hell if he didn't appease himself. As the session went on, it became clear that this is what the presenters meant by Western Christian ideology, although they focused on race specifically.
They pointed out that most Christian churches look more like western white America than we look like the scriptures, emphasizing individualism, consumerism/materialism and racism rather than saving communities, living simply to that others may simply live and deliberate reconciliation. They pointed out that the fastest growing denominations are Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals, all of which are only around 60% white. The fastest diminishing denominations are Lutherans, Congregationalists (UCC), and Anglicans, who are all 88-96% white. My favorite point that they made was that if churches really believed that overturning Roe vs. Wade was important because God doesn't want our society to kill babies, they should vote to give the 12 million undocumented workers living in America citizenship because they would overwhelmingly turn the tide on that issue. The implied message is that most churches believe in keeping America for Americans than they actually care about abortion.
I have heard that Rev. Soong Chan Rah is critical of the emerging movement for limiting its activities to the white evangelical and mainstream communities. I've also heard that he's pretty accessible so I'm going to see if I can get a lunch with him to talk about it further. Right now, I think that critique imbues the movement with more power or intention than it has, since we are not out there actively recruiting folks, simply being available to people that are looking for us. But I know there are subtle ways to be welcoming to non-white folks that we probably aren't doing on a movement level, even if some churches are. I'll be interested in what he has to say.
The final speaker was the crowning glory of emergent theology coming from all traditions. Dr. John W. Kinney is Dean and Professor of Theology and Historical Studies The Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology. He must also be a pastor of an Africa American church because he could preach. He started by saying "Faith is not a creed. Faith is a relationship. The creed is an attempt to communicate that relationship but can easily become an idol."
He could have stopped there and I would have gone home happy to have heard those words from an African American man's lips.
But he didn't stop there.
He railed against churches that use the Word to sanction where they already stand rather than to learn, change and grow because of it.
He bemoaned the fact that we are one nation under God because that means that we are not a nation with God. This hierarchical relationship that we have created is then reflected in all of our other relationships. A major tenet of emerging conversations and churches is a flattened social network, also called decentralized leadership. Dr. Kinney called this an over/under relationship. He said, "When you posit Christianity as the over religion [over other religions], it reaffirms the system that Jesus came to subvert." When emerging folks says that other religions might be just as valid as other religions since God isn't big enough to be contained by just one kind of spirituality, we get called pluralists like it's a dirty word. But here is this man, saying exactly that. He went on to say, "The concept of over/under is not the design of God, it's the result of the curse [of the Fall]." Wow. He made a great double entendre about not expecting women to be under men. I love the bawdiness that's allowed in the black church.
He used the text from Zephaniah 3 (thanks Bible Gateway!):
What sorrow awaits rebellious, polluted Jerusalem,But God is still in the city.
the city of violence and crime!
2 No one can tell it anything;
it refuses all correction.
It does not trust in the Lord
or draw near to its God.
3 Its leaders are like roaring lions
hunting for their victims.
Its judges are like ravenous wolves at evening time,
who by dawn have left no trace of their prey.
4 Its prophets are arrogant liars seeking their own gain.
Its priests defile the Temple by disobeying God’s instructions.
5 But the Lord is still there in the city,
and he does no wrong.
The passage goes on to say, "Therefore, wait." Stay in the city. Go to the city. But if God is still in the city, you can't save it. She already has. You are being blessed by being allowed in.
Dr. Kinney also pointed out that the first thing you have to do to resurrect the dead in Scripture is break with religious tradition. "You gotta touch some people you've been taught not to touch."
If that isn't a rallying cry for the emergent movement to begin interacting with folks who aren't white and educated, I don't know what is.