Emerging, Religion

A Discomfortable Edge

Recently my Conference Minister asked if I would co-chair our Annual Meeting for the next two years. He said my name came up because the topic they hope to explore in 2010 is the Emerging Church.

Hoo-boy.

If you know me at all, if you read my old blog especially, you'll know I cannot get on the page with Emergent very easily. When I read that certain leaders in the movement do not support women in leadership, or that they are still trying to figure out what to do about LGBT people and their inclusion, I think, "This is why I am no longer Southern Baptist."

I skipped over a big, uncomfortable discussion and went straight to the United Church of Christ, where there are local pockets of concern and question but the national church is *proud* of our long history of ordaining people from traditionally unacceptable groups, as well as a history of prophetic, classically liberal pronouncements.

And yet at our General Synod last month, people felt left out of a debate about changing the governance structure, a discussion on which I truly have no informed opinion. I can simply see that we have a money problem and hear that there is no happy way to make changes.

Believe me, I know what that is like. Whether it's a local church or a denomination or a household of four people, making major changes in response to a financial downturn hurts. Someone will always feel discounted; everyone may feel disappointed.

How long is long enough to sit at a discomfortable edge? How long is too long?

I agreed to co-chair the Annual Meeting, in large measure because I suspect that in relatively isolated Maine, my uncomfortable forays into reading about Emergent are about as much experience as anyone has with it. While other mainline churches have their own Emergent branches, we on the oddly nerdy liberal fringe of Trinitarian Christianity haven't related much to the conversation, even though
we're held up as the example of all that is bad about the mainline
church by one of Emergent's leading lights. (I'm not going to say his
name because I don't really want him to find this post. And he knows
how to find posts about himself, as some of my blogging friends have
discovered by mentioning him.)The one church in our Conference that might be labeled Emergent is, as far as I can tell, out of favor for becoming less denominational.

I, on the other hand, seem to be viewed as a Company Gal.

And that takes me to the discomfortable edge. So many things get tangled up together. At Small Church, I believe I ministered in ways that opened up space for the Spirit to move, for the Spirit to emerge, if you will. In that place and among those people the Spirit seemed to call for colored candles and unusual flowers and twigs and drama in worship–lots of drama–and music from a variety of traditions that underscored the message. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to a positive vote to be Open and Affirming. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to hope for the future. And that was all good, but it didn't save Small Church from the inevitable need to hire a part-time pastor or spare me the difficult decision to leave so they could recognize the need.

At the discomfortable edge, the new emergence may not save–really it surely won't save–the old structures.

How, then, do we ask people who liked the old ways to allow something new to emerge when it may hasten the erasure of all they loved? Is it enough to tell them it was going to die, anyway? Are we inviting ourselves to a suicide party?

Believe me, no one wants to attend that.

We'll move more quietly, then, toward extinction. We don't have the kind of theology that urges us to save the souls of
others; our beliefs don't have the ferocity of evangelicalism.

But I admire that ferocity, that sense that the Word received must be transmitted.

Some churches, the ones that have maintained their endowments or that are particularly well-situated, will go on for some time. But the others will drop sooner, unable to defend themselves, like plant-eating dinosaurs finally pushed over a discomfortable edge. 

18 thoughts on “A Discomfortable Edge”

  1. 🙂 I like so much about this, except what I don’t like. You are prophetizing all over the place, no?
    What a bold leadership role for you to take, and a bold topic for the UCC to explore.

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  2. Wow. Incredible words and thoughts. I sat with a group of beloved, hard-working church members who asked the same question I believe every church is asking these days – “how do we get more members so we’ll survive?” How far away they are from even acknowledging that there may be a day when church as we know it – nt just OUR church – won’t exist. Such brave thoughts you’re having.

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  3. But is there no middle ground between ‘the way it’s always been’ and the ’emergent church’ as it is most popularly construed? I have to believe that there is; otherwise aren’t we just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?
    Even as I say that I see what you are describing happening in the smaller dioceses and parishes of the Episcopal Church in New England. In the Diocese of Vermont there are something like 10 churches out of 50 that still have full time rectors.

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  4. If it’s my post you’re thinking of, I didn’t even have to mention his name for him to find me and leave the proverbial turd in the punchbowl. Hopefully he is busy enough not to be as hyper-vigilant as he once was.
    I like much of what I hear and read about emergent, but find the medium and some of the messengers problematic at times. So like they say in 12 step meetings I “take what I like and leave the rest.”
    Good luck in this endeavor.

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  5. I suggested you at a coco meeting, because you get it! Painfully, but hopefully you get it. To many just get it painfully. We need to invite people who may not be able to fund us but need to be at the table…belong at the table. Will that bring us money???? I dont know and I am not worried about it. God will provide. But all are welcome. I dont want to believe in anything, put my stake in anyplace, believe in a creator who could not welcome anyone….What is it coming to? As Monty Python would exclaim…And now for something totally different! We have shuffled our feet around for too long SAYING it must change. We need the next phase and the leaders who can realistically and joyfully pursue it. I think you are that! And much more! Cant wait to have lunch on Wednesday!

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  6. rm, I do remember that but not that you hadn’t named him. That just makes it worse, doesn’t it?
    More recently I was thinking of his visit to the comments at Carol H-M’s blog.

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  7. Emergent or otherwise, there are many changes that are needed in order for our churches to thrive…even a smaller congregation can be a vital force in the lives of it’s members. One thing I have seen in congregations near us is that we need to find ways to get people to speak of faith matters in more personal ways, to not worry so much about sounding “too fundamental” that the pendulum swings far wider than it needs to in order to remain as far from that image as possible. Consequently, it seems that many feel more comfortable with a more personal and less community oriented expression of faith. When people are afraid to include the words “God” or “Jesus” in conversations held during coffee hour, there is a problem…

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  8. Speaking of being on the discomfortable edge, have you seen this article?
    I”m glad you’re co-chairing those meetings. You will be a good voice there…
    Plus, you already ARE emergent, I keep telling you, Rev. Blog Woman.

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  9. Excellent post, Songbird. I just can’t get on board with the emergents either, though probably for different reasons than yours–except for the woman thing. The movement seems cliquish rather than inclusive on a lot of levels.

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  10. what Juniper and everybody else said. Discomfortable edge–I love the image.
    I never have really got “emergent church movement”.
    I like the thought of emergent…or how I think I see it, which is to embrace tradition while being relevant to the day. I guess I better go read the book.
    My favorite quote last week in a meeting was when a pastor from Detroit asked an pastor in urban Boston, “You know, the Church is in trouble, especially mainlines, what is your response?”
    And the Boston pastor said, “my brother, have you ever known a time when the church wasn’t in trouble?”
    Guess whose congregation is changing their corner of the world?

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  11. if the unnamed person you refer to is who i think it is…i attended one of his Events last year. My, was he surprised to find a group of folks from My Moldy Denomination in the second row just behind him.

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  12. ah church as wae know it or don’t know it… and church as wae want to see it… or dont’ see it. the quandry of call… are we doing/being enough… enough of what god wants… and can we do that and tune out the voices of what & who others want us to be… or is god working thru their voices? seriously… anyone up for a glass of wine? *clink clink* congrats songbird on stretching yourself to do this…

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  13. Thanks, Spencer. I really appreciated Phyllis’ book.
    Juniper, I love that article, and Carter’s statement is powerful. (I always liked him.)

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  14. I read all the McLaren books and enjoyed them. The “concept” is one I can fully wrap my brain around so much more than standard theology. However, as with any group, hierarchy’s develop and policies come to light that might not fully be as inclusive as we’d like to think. Are we, as humans, ever REALLY going to be able to embrace who Jesus was? How radical THAT would be.

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