built to break down: a diary of the emerging church

My favorite time of year kicks off the weekend before Thanksgiving when I spend a good four days immersed in all things nerdy and theological. I join the religiously obsessed at the American Academy of Religion conference and spend my days reveling in a wide range of topics. I love it not only because I realize, “hey! there are thousands of people just as into this stuff as I am!” but also because it challenges me spiritually, stretches me mentally, and awakens me to the new work that’s constantly being done in the field.


Anyway, enough fawning over AAR. This year, one of the sessions I attended was a panel on Millennials in the Emerging Church. (I claim to neither be a millennial nor a part of the emerging church; Ryan says this is a sure-fire sign that I do, in fact, belong to both.) The panelists and the audience kept wondering whether a movement that prides itself on being decentralized, egalitarian, and grass-roots could have any future in or impact on the centralized church as we know it. 


Is a movement as such built to break down? Does any sort of substantive impact necessitate a more formalized power structure? Is the future of these decentralized, emerging movements containment within a centralized “parent” organization like a larger denomination? Does that strengthen the movement (because, funding!) or weaken it (because, power structure)? 


Within these questions is something I’ve ruminated over for years now: What does leadership look like in a decentralized church movement? 


I grew up in the non-denominational Evangelical church. Typically these are the types of structures emerging churches are “emerging” from or reacting against. Yet when faced with the leadership question I see some overlap. The beauty of both a non-denominational organization and an emerging community is (often) the lack of hierarchy. It’s easy for lay leaders to rise up, for the priesthood of all believers to really take root. 


The downside is, well, the lack of hierarchy. Each church or community has to figure out how they’re going to operate as an organization without a blueprint that being part of a more organized group (like a denomination) might provide. I often liken this process to being part of a startup. There are some major upsides to striking out on your own, not being tied down to a corporate rulebook. But there are some deficits you’re going to have to address as well, and some places that a bureaucratic power structure would come in handy. 


Namely, how are you going to equip, mentor, and empower leaders? Now I know - from hearing stories on this panel and talking to people elsewhere - that even within a denominational structure these questions arise. But often in the emerging (and non-denominational) movement there is very little in place for people who feel a call to lead. 


This has played out for me, personally, over and over in various churches. I’ll explain to the pastor what I’m passionate about, what I feel my gifting and calling is, and they almost don’t know what to do with me. On the one hand it’s great because - thanks to no power structure or hierarchy - they give me free reign: to write, teach, preach, and more. But on the other hand, there’s no clear path for how I might continue to develop and grow these skills. There’s a lack of mentorship, a lack of resources to support my gifts so I can empower those around me. 


Then there’s the education piece. In an ideal world, I would like my leaders to be theologically well-educated; not just when it comes to the heady stuff of the academy, but also when it comes to learning the best (slash least damaging) ways to mentor a faith community. Who’s going to pay for that? Now I know denominational structures are asking this question as well, and seminaries are feeling the pain of decreased emphasis on theological education. But this is especially true in an emerging or decentralized faith movement. Fortunately I had the resources to self-fund my seminary education but most people I know are saddled with crippling debt (that no minister will realistically be able to pay back!), or unable to go at all. 


This is, I suppose, a struggle to gather the best of both worlds: a well-equipped, academically-educated leadership guiding an egalitarian community that is decentralized from any typical faith-based organizational structures. These things sure do seem mutually exclusive! And if they are, are we back to our original question? Is such a movement built to break down? 


Selfishly, I hope not. These movements are where I’ve found my spiritual home, in one form or another (and in spite of my distaste for labeling it accordingly), for most of my life. They are quick to evolve and change to meet the needs of people that are evolving and changing. Some would call this pandering to the whims of the culture; I like to think of it as speaking the gospel in a language people can understand. This is why I’ve continued to choose to be emergent, or non-denominational - or whatever you want to call it - in the face of questions about the viability and future of the movement. 


This big-picture framework is the place from which we should attempt to answer these questions:


Does a substantive impact necessitate a larger power structure (like that of a denomination or parachurch organization)? Maybe in some cases or communities. And in those situations we should be more concerned with then impact than with how the power structure might get in the way of our ability to be “emergent” (whatever that means anyway). 


Will a larger power structure strengthen or weaken an emergent community? Could go either way. We that identify as emergent should keep our eyes open for causes of strengths or weaknesses and adjust the movement as needed, without being so committed to doing things one way or another that we lose sight of our most important components: people + gospel. 


And finally: is such a movement built to break down? Again, maybe. If an emergent community is truly tuned in and responsive in the way it gospels a community it will by definition continue to … emerge. Maybe it will emerge into new ways of bringing up leaders, maybe it will return to tried-and-true methods. Maybe we are on the cusp of new-wave emergence, or post-emergence - but that doesn’t mean we experienced a break down in the emergent movement as we know it now.


It might just mean we experienced its utmost success.