From United Methodist Emergent-cy to United Methodist Emergent insurgency?

There has been some push back on a recent post from the United Methodist Reporter comparing the early Methodists to the emergent church. I thought the analogy made sense and was excited about it.  I also wrote about it on my church’s blog.

Rev. Dan Dick who is my favorite UMC blogger and probably the most prolific UMC blogger was not impressed. From his “United Methodist Emergent-cy”:

I read the article in The United Methodist Reporter the other day, and it left me scratching my head.  I cannot figure out how some of our most intelligent thinkers in the church see the emerging/emergent church as a modern-day Methodist movement.  Missional, yes, but evangelical?  Only the later independent and mainline churches that undermined the original intention.  The Methodist movement went to the streets, extending a fairly strict orthodoxy on an unsuspecting world.  Not so, emerging church. The Methodist movement aimed at the lower classes — the workers, blue collar and otherwise, with little advanced education.  Emergent?  Primarily the privileged classes with above average income and education (with some exceptions).  Methodist movement governed by rules, regulations, and protocols.  Emerging/emergent… not so much.  Methodist movement ruled by a hierarchy; uhm, not so’s you’d notice in the emerging church.  Context is hugely different.  Sources and backgrounds, very different.  Focus, fundamentally different.  Energy — okay, energy and passion pretty close (but you can say the same of American Idol).

Now, I might be missing the point of Rev. Dick’s argument because there is a bunch to unpack here.  This is just the last part of the first paragraph of his post! And Dan is also right when saying that the translation of emergent thought and praxis into mainline/mainstream churches has been mostly disingenuous .

But Ill start with this paragraph and see where the conversation leads, if anywhere at all.

1.  “The Methodist movement went to the streets, extending a fairly strict orthodoxy on an unsuspecting world.  Not so, emerging church”

I think part of my confusion with Dan’s post is that he is referring to a longer emergent conversation that I am not aware of.  My understanding of the emergent church is based on the conversation/movement that has coalesced around Emergent Village with voices from a few others who aren’t as directly tied to EV. Think Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne.

The emergent church doesn’t have a “fairly strict orthodoxy” but there are definitely some guiding principles.  From the Emergent Village website:

  • Growing”: which indicates our desire to develop as the dreams of God for the healing, redemption, and reconciliation of the world develop.
  • “Generative”: which means that we expect our friendship to generate new ideas, connections, opportunities, and works of beauty.
  • “Friendship”: Because we firmly hold that living in reconciled friendship trumps traditional orthodoxies – indeed, orthodoxy requires reconciliation as a prerequisite.
  • “Missional”: Because we believe that the call of the gospel is an outward, apostolic call into the world.

Though this can’t be construed as “orthodoxy,” perhaps we can see this as A Wesleyan Quadrilateral for the 21st century? Or anti-orthodoxy?  And taking that “fairly strict orthodoxy to an unsuspecting world”?  While most Christians during the last decade plus spent most of their time dreaming of  mega churches and political power in the vehicle of the religious right, emergent folks were quietly organizing their churches and theology for  a post-Christian right America.

2. “The Methodist movement aimed at the lower classes — the workers, blue collar and otherwise, with little advanced education.  Emergent?  Primarily the privileged classes with above average income and education (with some exceptions)”

Are emergents in the prisons, in the fields, in the unemployment lines, at the Wal-Mart? Probably not enough–but what church is?  There are of course some very smart people who head up the emergent conversation–but didn’t John Wesley go to Oxford?

Tony Jones likes to tell the story of Trucker Frank–a pastor-turned truck driver–who embodies working class sensibilities.   Here is a video of Trucker Frank.   Most emergent folks I know are intentional about building a “church” that includes the poor and working class– and art kids!

3.  “Methodist movement governed by rules, regulations, and protocols.  Emerging/emergent… not so much.  Methodist movement ruled by a hierarchy; uhm, not so’s you’d notice in the emerging church.  Context is hugely different.  Sources and backgrounds, very different.  Focus, fundamentally different.  Energy — okay, energy and passion pretty close (but you can say the same of American Idol).”

Yes, the energy and passion of the early Methodists and the emergents are “pretty close” but I wouldn’t say that the emergents’ passion is “American Idol”-esque.  Most of the emergent leaders don’t make much of a living through there writing and church leadership gigs.  There has to be a real passion to keep this thing moving!

There isn’t an emergent hierarchy and Emergent Village has just got rid of its national coordinator position.  But there was seemingly much room to operate within the hierarchy of the early Methodists –especially on the North American Frontier. Here is a quote from Wikipedia bout those early Methodist circuit riders:”

They traveled with few possessions, carrying only what could fit in their saddlebags. They traveled through wilderness and villages, they preached every day at any place available (peoples’ cabins, courthouses, fields, meeting houses, later even basements and street corners.

It was those efforts that built the early Methodist Church and made it the most importan protestant denomination in the country.  Many of the Emergent leaders carry on this same spirit–minus the hierarchy.

Now, I don’t think the Early Methodist movement inspired the emergent convesration all that much–but that both originate from a similar historical place.   I think the emergent conversation overall  could give many UMCers  room to operate in ways that could potentially challenge and transform the United Methodist Church into something much closer to what Wesley was all about.

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2 thoughts on “From United Methodist Emergent-cy to United Methodist Emergent insurgency?

  1. I like the engagement with the ideas, and I don’t think there is a “right” answer here. I guess my real point is that it feels like (to me personally) that we are comparing a romanticized and somewhat mythological Methodism with a revamped, revised, and mainline-modified “emergent” church. I also have not included Shane Claiborne in my list of those I feel have kind of redefined “emergent.” If I have seen a good model of what “emergent” looks like in the mainstream evangelical market, it would have to be Shane.

    • As one of the contributors to the article Dan critiques, let me offer a few words here. I’ve done so more extensively over on Dan’s blog (which I highly commend!).

      Basically, I don’t think “the emergent church” exists.

      And for Methodists, at least, I don’t think Emergent/Emergent Village identifies who we are or can be at our best and in all the kinds of contexts where we already are. I see Emergent/Emergent Village as having focused primarily on a postmodern and largely white, somewhat suburban, and anti-institutional context for its work. I think they have done and continue to do or to goad at least good missional work in that context.

      But that’s not the only context we have in the US.

      The broader conversation is one about the emerging missional way– one that places the emphasis on missional and notes that that emphasis itself finds itself having to re-emerge as it were against a background of existing institutional forms that focus almost exclusively on being attractional (cf the whole church growth movement).

      With that broader conversation, I do think early Methodism– before we re-formed ourselves into a sect that became in essence an established church — absolutely does fit.

      And I think a renewed/restored missional Methodism that takes equally seriously the “doctine, spirit and discipline with which we started out” and the varieties of missional contexts in which we find ourselves now, does that or can do that today.

      And that’s what we’ll be exploring, celebrating, and committing ourselves to at emergingumc2: restoring missional methodism, at Lockerbie Central on November 12-14 (or 15 for those who want to stay on a little longer).

      Peace in Christ,

      Taylor Burton-Edwards

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