I recently attended the Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis, TN. To be open, I knew very little about Emergence, Emergent, Emerging, Emerge(+suffix) Christianity going into this event. To be completely open, what I thought I knew can be easily listed: re-purposed liturgical elements in worship, an integration of high and low arts and appreciation of the role aesthetics play in worship, an emphasis on community, a rejection of traditional church polities, a movement away from church buildings, reading books by Peter Rollins. What I discovered at the conference was a historical narrative where Phyllis Tickle argues that society and Christian religion are on the cusp on philosophical changes equal in magnitude to the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation. If you want to know more about her arguments, then read her book Emergence Christianity, if you want to know more about what everything I encountered meant to me, a CBF minister, reader further.
I was surprised and saddened by the way that Baptists (and for that matter other descendants of the the Dissenting Church) do not figure into Phyllis Tickle’s presentation of global Christianity. Many of the issues she finds closely connected to Emergence Christianity have occupied Baptist thinking since the 17th Century, particularly the loss of Christianity as a state religion and the struggle with an absence of authority in the loss of a church hierarchy. On the separation of church and state, I think that we have in fact played an important role in the History of Western Christianity, and we are important dialogue partners for what this separation means. On the issue of church authority, I think we provide Emergence Christianity with a wealth of knowledge held by our theologians, historians, ministers, and laity. Perhaps more importantly we hold a wealth of examples both positive and negative in our attempts to locate order when every believer is a priest and every church autonomous. What many Baptists have done with misguided views of “scriptural authority” or the Baptist Faith and Message paints a cautionary tale for any Christian group who imagines themselves throwing off the yolk of ecclesial authority. We are at every corner tempted to reinvest that authority in something else. Emergence Christianity ought to take this temptation seriously. It is a movement without bishops but with famous speakers on conference and lecture circuits publishing books at an increasing rate. As a Baptist, that is to say, as someone overly suspicious of any possible seat of authority, I fear that the Emergence movement already invests too much authority in its leaders by way of uncritical support of their arguments (this is not to say that these leaders want this authority, though, simply to say that people want to find a place to consciously or subconsciously locate their authority). Nobody at the conference was of Paul, of Apollos, or of Cephas, but some of the fawning tweets from the conference looked scarily like “I am of Jones, I am of Pagitt, I am of Tickle #EC13”.
The absence of Baptists from the historical narrative, I think points to James McClendon‘s assertion that “baptists” (a group that also includes anabaptists, most non-denominational churches, and others) are not actually Protestants. Whether McClendon is right about “baptists” or not, we have not been active dialogue partners with the other Protestants, and I think Emergence Christianity gives moderate and liberal baptists a new ground to converse over and new opportunities to share our stories and our histories. Whether or not CBF churches embrace Emergent theology and ecclesiology, the movement may still be fruitful for the future of the CBF.
I was surprised and pleased by the friendliness of everyone at the conference. There was a real energy around doing something or being a part of something new. Everyone in attendance was not in agreement over theological matters nor did they all agree with Phyllis Tickle on what Emergent Christianity means. However there was a spirit of friendship that reminded me of Jesus’ friendship with the disciples in John 15. If we are Jesus’ friends, then we are surely each others’ friends. I wish that as Baptists we could embody this spirit of friendship with each other. I do not know if we need to understand that there is always a newness to what we do and what we are part of, but I think we need to adopt some of that feeling.