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June 29, 2006

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Brad Jersak

Diverging or Converging: Nuancing the Emerging Church

Dear Ron,

Thanks for your excellent article on the "emerging church" movement. I'd like to respond by nuancing some of their ecclesial trajectory and the challenges they face.

As a champion of the historic church, you tend naturally to assess the emerging church as it evolves relative to the stability of the great streams of Christian faith (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican). You correctly note that much of the emerging church movement continues to be a further fragmentation in the long history of schism wrought by the sixteenth century reformers. The splintering ad nauseum is absolutely a sign and symptom of rotten concrete in the foundations (termites in the hull, no doubt). And so, to an observer such as yourself who deems the great ships of faith to be more reliable in the face of history's spiritual storms, the tiny independent churches that continue to multiply must appear very fragile and hardly sea-worthy.

I get this. But I'd also like to nuance it somewhat on a few points, remembering some fine points of church history.

First, remember that many of those little boats are actually like lifeboats that came to be, not because the sailors were abandoning ship, but because for some very questionable reasons, they were unceremoniously dumped overboard. For example, the Roman Catholic Church jestisoned Huss and his followers (the Hussites, the Bohemian Brethren, and ultimately the Moravians), not because of any real heresy or wrong-standing, but so that the Hapsburgs could declare a crusade against them in order to conquer their resource-rich land. Numerous other groups could repeat this story, yet surely none of them should be charged with schism.

Second, many head for the lifeboats in the hopes of saving the drowning. In fact, they were commissioned to do so by their mother-church. Initially, they made an effort to remain tethered to the ship, but sadly, found those running the ship cutting their lines out of jealous or malice. This appears to be the case with Methodism, which Wesley intended to remain a renewal movement within Anglicanism until those in the wheelhouse refused to ordain bishops for the work in the New World.

To summarize thus far, while many little works can be accused of abandoning ship, the motherships of historic Christianity must take some responsibility for schism and fragmentation when they throw someone overboard for dubious reasons or effectively cut the line of those who become inconvenient to cover.

However, to this point, I'm merely describing the Protestant splintering marked by increased divergence. Something quite different is happening at the forefront of "the emerging church"... in many cases their ecclesial trajectory is very intentionally towards convergence. In their theology, their spirituality, their worship, and with some patience, their ecclesiology, we are seeing many emerging churches giving the old ways a second look.

To extend our analogy, the movement of the emerging church dinghys appears to be back towards the big ships. Having cast off the prejudice of modernism towards history, many of the emerging church leaders are setting aside modern self-help and church-growth books in favour of the Patristics, the desert fathers, the classical mystics, and the great pre-modern poets and preachers. Their people are rediscovering liturgy, icons, and contemplative worship such as the Taize phenomenon. They are rebuilding working relationships and co-labouring with Priests and Bishops on the great ships who are patient with them. The little boats are gathering together in their own networks, and some of these are drawing into the wake and shadow of the ancient cruiseships.

This is occuring right now in Landsburg, Germany, where groups such as YWAM, the Vineyard, and the local Baptists are serving alongside Father Thomas, the Monsigneur there, to restore fellowship and begin a Christian youth movement in the very town where Hitler's Youth was first established. There is a oneness occuring that is nothing short of a miracle right within a cathedral originally built to spite Luther's reform.

In the best case scenario, the admirals of these great ships will take note and begin to throw lines of association out to the little boats, offering an invitation and introduction back into more direct fellowship. I see strong hints of this in Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams Lambeth address on June 27, 2006 entitled "Challenge and Hope for the Anglican Communion." One wonders what grabbing a lifeline will look like in the coming years.

In the worst case, the Admirals may order the guns to open fire or simply run over the little boats. Those seeking their shelter might find themselves orphaned all over again. Indeed, some groups that have desired to return to the Orthodox fold have found the door locked and simply opted to become an independent Orthodox denomination... an oxymoron to say the least.

Some in the emerging church will continue to diverge because they want to recreate ecclesiology on their own terms; they find this new movement to be a good bandwagon, the newest launch in a fleet of Christian trends.

However, to Ron and others who've reliably manned the "crow's nest" of the old ships over the years, I would say watch for those little boats who are drawing near--who are starting to borrow your buildings, your art, your books--they maybe looking for a line. Will they be able to tie on without scuttling their own little boats?

blessings and peace,

Brad Jersak

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