Enough room at the table

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There has been a lot of discussion about the emergent church lately and most Christian denominations in North America have been involved in the conversation. Many churches have started alternate worship services, some pastors and parishioners attend emergent cohorts and many churches have begun to incorporate historic Christian practices such as prayer labyrinths, creeds and lectio divina. All of this has had brought people into deeper and renewed journeys with Christ.

The emergent discussion, however, has not been without controversy. Antagonists have misinterpreted the activity and cry, “Heresy!” Equating the emergent movement with the teaching of universalism (all religions lead to heaven) and the denial of the atonement (the substitutionary death of Christ) is common, but not accurate. Many people read the critics rather than the authors of the movement. While the emphasis on inter-religious dialogue might feel uncomfortable, there is a consistent commitment to the primacy of Jesus. As in all movements there will be extremists, but the vast majority of emergent leaders would not affirm heretical teachings.

Missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin inspired much of the conversation in the emergent and missional movements. When Newbigin returned to Britain after decades of mission work in India he discovered a dwindling church and a post-Christian society. Newbigin approached the situation as a missionary, not suggesting a battle with or an adoption of culture, but taking on a learning posture and engaging the culture. He asked how Jesus could be reintroduced and how the Christian community might engage the new culture while being faithful to the whole gospel. In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society he reiterates the primacy of Christ and the mission of the church: “To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all.” His emphasis on Christ and the Christian community provided the impetus for other popular authors like Brian McLaren and Dan Kimball, as well as academics like Darrel Guder and Alan Roxburgh.

Though the theology is sound, feelings of distrust and suspicion remain. In The Sky is Falling, Alan Roxburgh identifies two types of congregants most affected by the cultural shifts at hand: liminals and emergents. Liminals are those who witness the cultural changes and are deeply concerned that something wrong is taking place. Feelings of anxiety, confusion and even anger are common. There is resistance to change and a call to regain what once was. Emergents are those who thrive in the new culture. Change invigorates them; it brings new life and new opportunities for living out the gospel in a post-Christian world. Unfortunately, a common outcome is for liminals and emergents to stand defiantly against one another, eventually parting ways. Liminals are glad to be rid of the emergents, and emergents are happy to start new churches. The best way forward, says Roxburgh, is to build communities in which we share life, live the gospel in community and learn from one another.

The early church struggled to reconcile two divergent worldviews as well: Jew and Gentile. To the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia and Colossae the Apostle Paul declared there was no longer a distinction between Jews and Greeks. To the Ephesians he announced that God “made both groups into one” and broke down the “dividing wall” of hostility by reconciling “both groups to God in one body through the cross.” If the table of the first-century church was big enough for Jews and Greeks, it ought to be big enough for liminals and emergents. Being “one” does not mean we always agree, but it does mean we will listen to and learn from each other.

Tim Neufeld is director of the contemporary Christian ministries program at Fresno Pacific University.

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