Eileen Flynn of the Austin American-Statesman had a huge package of stories on the emerging Christian church movement, both in Austin and throughout the country. The four-story series (here, here, here and here), along with solid photos by Laura Skelding, covers the emergent church movement that started in the late 1990s by a group of young Christians who worried about the gap between traditional churches and young people without formal church backgrounds or were frustrated with traditional churches. In the main story, Flynn highlights local Austin groups and focuses on individuals involved in the movement. Here's a slice of the scene Flynn describes throughout the package:
One Sunday this spring, [Gideon] Tsang and his congregation volunteered to spend the day reforesting an Austin nature preserve -- that was their worship gathering. Afterward, sweaty and dirty, they stopped for burgers, and people asked where they were coming from.
They grinned and replied, "Church."
"For the emerging churches, (church is) not a place, it's a people," [Fuller Seminary's Eddie] Gibbs said. "It's not a weekly gathering; it's a seven-day-a-week community. And you don't go to church; you are the church."
Now that's a great word picture, but I am glad Flynn didn't just leave the story at the tree-planting churchgoers. In what should be a larger, more-widely covered national story, Flynn takes a step back:
Some scholars who have watched the movement see young people rejecting the consumerism and individualism of the previous generation by simplifying their lives, paying more attention to environmental and social concerns and building stronger connections with other people. They say it is gaining steam and could be Christianity's next reformation; others dismiss it as one of the faith's fleeting fads, like the hippie-driven Jesus People movement in the 1960s and '70s.
The movement has taken on a variety of labels -- it's called emergent, emerging, postmodern and missional, among other things -- although these Christians resist being defined. Their numbers are difficult to estimate because they don't focus on attendance, and their ideas about what church should be cover a wide spectrum:
As tmatt says, this story is right out of the "hip heartland." From my own experience I would like to take issue with the idea that this is some type of reformation that will turn the Christian church on its head. While there is certainly a strong emerging church movement going on outside the traditional denominations, I have observed traditional denominations (at least theologically traditional) embrace the day-to-day-living principles described in these articles as vigorously as anyone.
And speaking of theology, that is the one aspect I found the package lacking. Much is made about the style of service, rejection of materialism and embracing the "Come as you are ... but don't stay that way" style of church discipleship, but we aren't told where these churches come down on key issues that often are make-or-break matters for families choosing a church home. And this is the most controversial and tricky part of the movement.
In a sidebar, Flynn touches on the teaching of one emerging-church pastor who was ousted from an Austin megachurch:
When he was an associate pastor at Riverbend, a West Austin megachurch, Rick Diamond remembers trying to convey the humanness of Jesus during a Bible study. Jesus was flesh and blood, Diamond told the group. He got sweaty; he went to the bathroom. Just like everyone else.
After the session, a man accosted him, seething, and said, "Jesus did not go to the bathroom." It occurred to Diamond that, for this man, Jesus needed to stay abstract. And it occurred to Diamond -- not for the first time -- that he wasn't comfortable where so many believed Jesus wasn't real.
And here is the section of the main article that briefly mentions theological issues:
Gateway pastor John Burke wrote a book, "No Perfect People Allowed," that has resonated with many ministers seeking to reach people who wouldn't normally set foot in a church.
Though Burke's writings deal with Emergent Church themes -- his church is hosting a conference on the subject this fall -- he says he isn't casting doubt on basic Christian doctrine the way some emerging Christians do. The church, he said, must tend to what's broken by opening its arms to sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, homosexuals and nonbelievers, giving them a place to ask hard questions about faith and helping them heal.
Who are these emerging Christians challenging basic Christian doctrine? And what is considered basic Christian doctrine these days anyway? The Nicene Creed? Then again, Flynn could have just asked the tmatt trio, or some version of it.
It's challenging to write about the theological beliefs of these emerging churches. Many seem embarrassed that they maintain some traditional teachings and practices, but will robustly proclaim their belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God (determining which parts are symbolic is another matter).
It would have been helpful if Flynn worked out these views in a sidebar or touched on the subject when introducing those who believe the emerging church movement is 21st-century philosophical relativism. The criticisms of the movement are more complex than that, and the movement can't be defined as a bunch of theological mushiness.
As Scot McKnight writes in a Christianity Today piece on the subject, emerging church types tend to believe that how a person lives is more important than what that person believes. Now that's an interesting belief.
Note to those wishing to comment: It's great that Flynn was able to publish such a long story on what is a fairly controversial subject. In keeping with the mission of this blog, keep your comments focused on Flynn's stories -- what aspects you liked and what aspects you thought were missing. There will be no theological snipping on this post. There are other blogs for that discussion.