Questioning The Great Emergence – What Emergents Don’t Understand About Us Anabaptists

Phyllis’ Grand Emergence
Last week I was in Toronto and had a great time with Phyllis Tickle. Great lady! Witty, effusive, full of facts and figures. Phyllis proposed her thesis concerning the Great Emergence. There is a massive cultural shift going on in the West. In response, the church is forced to clear out its attic (it happens once every 500 years). Amidst this rummage sale of sorts, churches and traditions are emerging to form a new version of church. A new core is coming into place taking the church into the next 500 years.

Sorry but I don’t see it.

Emergence or Divergence?

I admit that I’m naturally skeptical on meta-conclusions drawn from even the best historian’s study of Western history. But my take on Phyllis has more to do with what I observe in the West. Her thesis assumes that Christianity is still vital in the West. In fact, for Phyllis, it is vital enough to sustain meta-conversations across denominations and arrive at a new coalescence together. I see a Christianity whose survival is in doubt in the West. These church conversations therefore look more like Christians talking to themselves while acting as if we can influence a world that doesn’t care about what we have to say anymore. Phyllis sees a Christianity that comes together (eventually) through conversations. I see a Christianity that is splintering. As a result Christians look antagonistic to the world. Consequently, I don’t see a Great Emergence in our future. I see something that looks more like a Grand Disappearance exacerbated by this unappealing internal Divergence.

Conversation or Incarnation?

This view of things drives the Anabaptist in me to push conversations into the concrete life of incarnational communities. Anabaptist Christians are comfortable with the status of a minority. For us therefore, it’s a matter of gathering what is left of the faithful to inhabit contexts and live what we know to be true humbly and peaceably. We are called to incarnate Christ in a way of life that submits to Jesus as Lord and then watch what God will do. I think Phyllis thinks the future will come with grand conversations that lead to an eventual convergence. Anabaptists don’t find predicting the future helpful. Instead, we think we will get to the future through living the Kingdom faithfully, communally and incarnationally and letting God do His work. Conversations should be resolved in the concrete circumstances of incarnational life. Phyllis is from an established church (Episcopal) in the south (where there are a lot of Christians). Most of us Neo-Anabaptists have lost confidence in the established church. And a lot of us are from the north.

What Emergent Folk Don’t Understand Us Neo-Anabaptist Missionals

This all gets to the reason why I think some Emergent folk don’t understand us Anabaptists. Emergents push for conversation that is inclusive. We push for inclusive conversation that moves towards resolution on the ground under Christ’s Lordship in community. Like Phyllis, Emergents believe that somehow through talking we will all converge someday. They have faith that the established church will form anew (we Anabaptists smell Christendom here). We push for local incarnation, the working out of our faith and practice and mission in local communities who live under the Lordship of Christ and His incoming kingdom. Here we not only converse, we practice conflict resolution in mutual submission to His Lordship, we encounter His presence and receive and give out of the Eucharist, we minister to the poor by being present among them offering what we have, we participate in community, submitting to each others’ gifts. We do all these things in a way that theology is worked out on the ground.

I am sure Emergent’s do all of this! Yet for us, this is the soil from which true theology shall be done. This is the soil for the renewal of the church. We therefore resist isolating issues from the church community’s life in the world. We believe you work out issues like same sex relations, pluralism, gospel etc., IN MISSION. We believe you work these issues out one community at a time and report what we have learned to the larger Body.  We work these issues out to resolution because they will not go away and demand the attention of our communities who are dealing with these issues right now.

“Disputable Matters”

In Emergent conversation, “disputable matters” (Rom 14) are to be held open for discussion in perpetual conversation.  The looming question for us Anabpatists is who gets the power to call something “a disputable matter”? Who gets the authority to say “this issue should be left open versus a belief/and or practice that must be dealt with for the sake of God’s justice/righteousness in the community and world? For the Anabaptist, this is the job of the community as the Holy Spirit works from the ground up. When an issue arises, we continue to work together via Matt 18:15-20 until it is resolved (this could take months or even years). It is the local community which determines whether this issue can be resolved between two people or must be resolved for the whole community in its context.

Why I am Misunderstood Often In Emergent Circles.

Recently, in response to the continuing factions within the post evangelical landscape (as exemplified in the Rob Bell episode), I proposed on FaceBook that we need to work for a third forum to have theological discussions that avoid the two existing default options for framings theological cultural discussions (Emergent and Neo-Reformed). I suggested such a third forum would make space for the missional incarnational way. In response, I got the following articulate responses from my friend Mike Clawson …

He said this …

“I am increasingly getting the impression that a lot of the Neo-Anabaptist/Radical Orthodoxy folks out there don’t really want emergent types like Brian or Rob or me as a part of that coalition. Maybe they don’t get that our hesitancy to give solid answers and root ourselves in one particular theological tradition is itself a deliberate theological response. Or maybe they just don’t like that response (not surprisingly – few people are comfortable with letting ambiguity, gray areas, and diversity of opinions remain unsettled for too long). Either way, once again I feel like folks like myself are being pushed out of the camp – only this time not just by the Neo-Reformed crowd. Hopefully I’m wrong.”

the he said this …

“what I’m suggesting is that that community doesn’t have to be limited to just one particular tradition. We can exist within multiple communities and within ever widening spheres of community – some as broad as the human race, and some as narrow as a local church (or even just a small group within it). And all of those communities can have a role in shaping and forming us and our perception of truth. I guess I’m making an argument in favor of pluralism and the plurality of truth. I cannot limit myself to only one community of discourse (though I will not divorce myself from those communities either) because God’s reality is always so much bigger than just that one narrow realm of vision.”

These two responses illustrate for me the differences between Anabaptist missional and Emergent as discussed above! Notice, they want to hold the conversation open and inclusive. No defined traditions. We can be above traditions they suggest. For the Neo-Anabaptist however, these questions must be answered on the ground within traditions. With what else shall we think? When Mike Classen says “exist within multiple communities,” “broad as the human race” – us Anabaptists read this as the tradition of American liberalism. We’re ok with that as long as everybody acknowledges that we’re all working within some tradition. It seems that Mike Clawson inherently trust open conversations will someday lead us/them somewhere. No need to foreclose? Yet many of these issues are justice issues that need attention now. For the pastors within a local community we must seek God for what to do now. This is why Matt 18 is so important. The community in Scripture submitted to the Lordship of Christ in the gifts can work this stuff out. From that vantage point then we can speak to the wider church and theology is never separated from practice.

I contend there is a different logic here – inclusive yet incarnational – inclusive yet local and particular, dialogical yet working within some defined traditions.   This way believes “incarnational life will drives us towards resolution.” This is why I think Emergents understand me as being exclusive.


In conclusion, have I got the gist of Emergent right? I have been generally frustrated by conversations from that arena that seem to go nowhere. I am frustrated when we are constantly asked to keep conversations open on disputed matters? For some of us these disputed matters are issues of justice and require immediate response. Some of us pastors must nurture the flock into Mission through these disputed matters. Is it possible that the ones who can hold conversations open on key issues can do so because there’s nothing at stake on the ground for the ones making these conversations?

BTW If I’ve made any of my good Emergent friends angry with this post, I am sorry. But this is blog land. And this is what good blogs do. I’m just reporting stuff I have learned in community. And besides, us Anabaptists are used to people getting mad at us, even when we refuse to hit people :).

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