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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Flirting with Emergent, part III

When I left off with my last post I was about to describe the worship experience at Jacob's Well. But let me back up and describe the worship space. The sanctuary is typical of an old, main-line congregation. Lots of dark wood, stained glass windows, and pews. The sanctuary ambiance is an odd mix of old and new. Two large screens for power-point and showing video hang on either side of the chancel. The raised chancel is a stage for the band. To one side of the chancel there is a simple communion table draped in white cloth. The table also contains about a dozen white candles and some clay jars. A stark, wood cross stands behind the table. There is no pulpit. The preacher stands in the center aisle between the rows of pews towards the front of the sanctuary.

At 10:30, the band walks down the side aisle and plugs in. It is a six-piece band with a front man/acoustic guitarist, electric guitar, electric bass, fiddle, percussionist, and female back-up vocalist. They begin to play, words come up on the screens, and we're singing 15 minutes of praise-songs. But, these are a little bit different because the music is good and loud and has more of an alt. rock feel than other praise bands I've heard. Think two parts Dashboard Confessional and one part Death Cab for Cutie. They even do an emo version of "All Creatures of the Earth and Sky."

After singing three or four songs, we are led in a "Call to Worship" - in this case a couple paragraphs from Thomas Merton. Then children are dismissed and we're supposed to greet each other. I turn around like a spigot and discover that everyone around me has been coming for less than a month! (I estimate the attendance at between 350-400.) The band begins to play and soon we're singing another couple of songs. Following the music comes the sermon.

The sermon is delivered standing in the aisle. I might offer just a comment or two on the preaching. The other day I was talking with a friend who is a Methodist minister and I was telling him that I was going to blog about Jacob's Well. So we begin talking about Emergent and his comment sort of said it all about the preaching. "The thing about Jacob's Well is that it hasn't grown because Tim is a good preacher... except that... um... uh... actually he is an Ok preacher... no he's better than that, he's a great preacher... but he's not a good preacher." I was extrememly impressed with the conversational, authentic, under-stated, homiletic style. The sermon lasted probably 30 minutes but was engaging from beginning to end.

The sermon ends and the congregation is invited forward for communion (dip the bread in the juice.) Half-way through communion, the band begins playing again and the singing builds for another song or two. Then there is a spoken benediction and a sung benediction (really fast and rock and roll) and the service was over.

Copyright © 2005 by Thom Belote | Posted 27 July 2005 at 11:30 AM

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8 comments:

Patrick McLaughlin:

July 27, 2005 04:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Fascinating... but I'm still at a loss about what is distinctive and different about "Emergent".

The service sounds fine--but it appears to be a difference of individual style...

Shawn:

July 28, 2005 04:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Emergent Christianity is simply the slow maturation of what was not to long ago called "POMO" (Postmodern Christianity), which is seriously focused on the media, marketing, and, to a brief point, linguistic aspects of postmodern culture. Sadly, neither POMO or Emergent Christianity really seems to understand postmodernism, or they wouldn't still be perpetuating their own ideas of absolute "Truth" as found in their own religion. But they (POMO and Emergent) do understand the media tastes of this postmodern generation very, very well.
This movement can largely be credited to web names like The Ooze and to people like Leonard Sweet - A.K.A. "The Postmodern Ezekiel." There are a few more, and you can find web links to them from these two web sites.

Oh, and then there's the Acts 29 Network, which is advertised as "A network that helps plant Gospel-centered, missional, church-planting churches to a postmodern mindset." A "postmodern mindset?" Really?

I'm not a big fan of POMO or Emergent Christianity. Mostly because they are really not informed or truthful regarding postmodernism as a philosophy, and merely adopted the cultural aspects produced by it (like drinking the foam off the top of a Starbuck's ice-coffee and tossing the actual coffee). If you doubt that this is true just read the "Doctrinal Statement" at Acts 29 Church Network, and ask yourself it is even a possibility under a "postmodern mindset." Women are not permitted, for example, to lead churches in that Network. So, much for postmodernism, eh?

In the end, POMO and Emergent Christianity is the familiar Christianity we all know and love, but with new music, new furniture, and a new appreciation for aesthetic value. I flirted with postmodern Christianity right before I left Christianity for good and became a Unitarian. I appreciate their obviously good taste for contemporary aesthetics, but I would never flirt with it due to what is beneath the thin cultural veneer.

Scott Wells:

July 28, 2005 07:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

My understanding about hardcore Pomo church-stuff is not that its promoters believe a postmodern critique of truth is true, but rather that the people they're evangelizing assume it to be true. (I know that last clause doesn't jibe, but that's a problem with postmodernism.) Where I think they do their best work is where there intersect with postdenominationalism and "catholic Protestantism." But that's more like cleaning house than launching a new adventure.

I sense a certain cageyness because of what happened when Christianity "ate" the Last Big Philosophical Development (qua, modernism) -- it stopped being Christian and became liberal.

Which goes back to why I think Unitarian Universalism is at a "change or die" point -- not that I'm going to launch into a crusade or be killed by it -- and why (all trappings aside) we're not Emergent-ish.

Shawn:

July 28, 2005 09:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Scott - Pomo Church, Leonard Sweet, Acts 29, and others, have not set out to convert postmodernists or even change postmodernism, but to call for the embrace of it culturally by churches who really want to survive the landscape. I have tons of books written by these folks (I did say I flirted with this stuff before becoming a Unitarian), and no where did they talk about postmodernism as a relativistic philosophy, but the word is used in almost every other paragraph, at least.

The movement totally ignores postmodern philosophy, and especially the relativity aspect, which is what really confuses me and causes me to wonder if they even know what they are talking about philosophically when they refer to their movement as "Postmodern Christianity," or now, "Emergent." They do make a lot of noise for postmodern culture, without talking too deeply about postmodernism as a relativistic philosophy.

I'm not sure why they didn't just go with "Christians following culture trends," or something more accurate. After all, most of Len Sweet's work - which is almost considered Bible in Pomo Christian circles - is filed under the "Futurist" category, and is nothing but cultural guess work in the line of futurist "Faith Popcorn", to whom he should send royalty checks for his books and POMO Christian career, IMHO.

I recall L. Sweet's "E.P.I.C.," which means Experiential, Participatory, Interactive, and Communal, and was/is the postmodern recipe for successful churches in our present landscape. Emergent uses it as well, even if they don't paste the acrostic on everything anymore.

I honestly believe that the UU could be Emergent-ish if we simply started to pay attention to cultural trends and aesthetics. Take a tour of the churches in the Acts 29 Network. Those churches didn't change their foundational message at all. They only changed that which they situated this message into. So, Emergent is not really that difficult to imagine in a UU setting. Especially if it means a mere focus on setting, and not message.

Like I said, personally speaking, I will not be flirting with Pomo Christianity or Emergent any time in the future. Besides, all they are doing is adjusting to cultural trends; you can do that without becoming Emergent, can't you? Emergent doesn't own the act of cultural adjustment.

RevThom:

July 29, 2005 02:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Look what happens when you launch a discussion and then absent yourself from it. (I can only imagine what Paul felt like.)

In the first post in this series, I asked several questions. So far it seems like the vote is that Emergent is more of a form than its own theology. And it has been suggested that what UUs could/should borrow from it is "a good taste for contemporary aesthetics" and a sense of "postdenominationalism."

I also hear a great deal of distaste for "Emergent" as it is described above because it is: dishonest in how it represents itself/philosophically dishonest, and is a troubled form of conventional Xianity in disguise.

I'll be back a little later to write my final chapter in this series.

Dan Harper:

July 29, 2005 08:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's easy to be snarky about the emergent church. However, Unitarian Universalists should probably pay attention to two aspects of emergent church -- willingness to engage with postmodern culture, and willingness to incorporate all arts (including new media) into worship. Unitarian Universalism currently has a poor record of paying attention to these two areas.

Personally, I am most interested in the ways that some emergent churches incorporate the arts into worship. E.g., I have seen some very interesting reports of using performance and installation art, computer-generated soundtracks, video, and more, in emergent church worship. As someone who spent some time in art school, I find most UU worship services pretty boring -- would be nice to include some contemporary art!

And thanks, Thom, for looking into emergent church for us. I've been following your series with interest.

Shawn:

July 29, 2005 11:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

First of all, there was no "snarkiness" in my responses, lest anyone misinterpret my thoughts. I readily admit the need for UUism to look closely at the aesthetic value of Postmodern and Emergent Christianity, and did so in my responses. I also provided a link to an entire network of churches (Acts 29) who are doing just that. They do it well, there's no denying it. They are fine cultural examples of the importance of form in worship.

As someone who is a member of Generation X (the demographic target of most Postmodern and Emergent churches), I inherently appreciate the aesthetic value of the music, imagery, symbolism, and art implemented by these churches. These are, after all, the foundational aspects of the media culture I was raised in. That is why I had so much to do with them before my theological and philosophical change. Thom, I believe you too are a member of this demographic. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

If form alone were sufficient, I would still be there.

Also, the "reports of using performance and installation art, computer-generated soundtracks, video, and more, in emergent church worship," as cited by Dan, are not pointing toward anything new or uniquely Emergent. This style has been implemented in Pentecostal, Four Square, and Vineyard churches for years. I spent over six years immersed in this style of worship. It was a very good worship experience and was usually overflowing with 20-35 year olds who enjoyed it tremendously. I do not disagree with the worth of the style itself, or its extreme usefulness in reaching the younger religious seekers in this country. The benefits become obvious when, for instance, the growth rate of the Assemblies of God - which is just over 100 years old or so - is compared to the UUA. But, in the end, Emergent is a borrowed form superimposed over an Evangelicalism struggling to adapt to the present, like the rest of us.

If UUism is serious about learning from POMO and Emergent Christianity, it will also have to look a bit deeper than mere aesthetics. These churches meet in make shift buildings, garages, cycled homes, gyms, coffee shops, and movie theaters (where the preacher times the end of the service with the smell of popcorn popping). They also have no difficulty tossing the traditional Sunday morning service for a Friday or Saturday night slot. They are also highly evangelistic. The form/style is tailored for witnessing, reaching, and making disciples. This fact alone make questionable the amount of "Emergent Style" translatable to the present UU service. Emergent worship is blue-jean, come-as-you-are worship. Emergent is about weekly group trips into the bowels of the city to clean up trash, and get personal with the locals. Emergent is also led by very young pastors (check Acts 29 Network) who don't need M.Div degrees or sermon manuscripts. These young pastors also have no problem telling the last generation of church leaders to kindly step aside, if need be. It goes on, but I think that is a sufficient description of their dedication to fluidity.

If Unitarian Universalists really want to learn from Pomo and Emergent Christianity, we will have to take a look at what they do aesthetically, but then we'll have to look even deeper before deciding if what we observe is really applicable to Unitarian Universalist congregations. The first lesson of this style/form present is obvious ... "It's all or nothing."

As regards the philosophical foundation of POMO and Emergent Christianity - again, it just doesn't make sense to me, personally. This is probably just a case of philosophical language and terminology. I'm just not sure why a group would use relativity to espouse what it considers to be absolute truth. It's confusing but probably not relevant in this particular discussion.

Patrick McLaughlin:

August 2, 2005 09:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

RevThorn observes that there were questions asked...

• Is Emergent a style/form or a theology/theological process or both or something else?

Sounds like it's style--with a nice marketing spin. "Emergent," heck, get on the bus, be in on the ground floor....

Both in my reading and from the comments, I've yet to see anything that looked like there was something new to the theology/process.

• Would an Emergent-style UU church work?

Probably. In fact, I spent much of two days (trapped in El Paso with a car problem, coming back from GA) talking with a friend about just how one might aim to create a UU megachurch (at least by UU standards...) from the ground up, aiming at the very age demographic we fall on our face with so often. Which is why the Emergent discussion caught my eye.

• If so, would such a UU-Emergent church need to be grounded in U/U/UU Christian theology, or could such a church work with a theology that wasn’t Christianity-based?

Since I'm seeing Emergent as a stylistic issue, it's hard to see the question as being that significant. There doesn't seem to be anything uniquely Christian in the style...

• If our congregations could learn one thing from a place like Jacob’s Well, what would that be?

Now there's the question that's really interesting to me. And I don't have an answer. Yet.



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