I’ve just had the pleasure of hosting Tony Jones on his short visit to Queensland. Tony’s the national director of Emergent Village, a collective of theologians, artists, poets, philosophers based on friendship and honest engagement with emerging understandings of being church in the USA. He’s in Australia at the moment primarily to speak at Black Stump festival near Sydney.
I picked Tony up from the Brisbane airport on Wednesday morning and dropped him back there on Friday afternoon. We turned up together to a gathering of Baptist church planters, a couple of ecumenical gatherings in Brisbane, and a Uniting Church conversation on the Gold Coast. I got to hear four versions of the Emergent Village schtick, which Tony kindly varied each time for the sake of keeping my interest up.
Here’s a few of my impressions on the Emerging Church, which I wrote for Ashmore Uniting Church newsletter this weekend…
Freedom to Explore Questions
One of the most common questions I’ve heard people ask Tony is, “How would you know if you’ve become unorthodox?” That’s because a number of authors from the Emerging Church movement have challenged readers to reconsider what we mean by the Christian gospel? Is it all about God dealing with our sin? Or are there other ways to describe the good news of the kingdom of God? And what are our blind spots when it comes to the way we run our church?
Wells rather than Fences
One of the hallmarks of the emerging church movement is a tendency to be relaxed about who’s in and who’s out of activities run on behalf of the church. People are invited to connect with Christian community who may not consider themselves as followers of Christ. People are accepted as friends of Jesus rather than assessed on correct doctrine or behaviour. It’s a bit like the difference between keeping animals behind fences and attracting them to watering spots. Of course, as one of the Baptists pointed out, that concept has been around for a while and is not monopolized by the Emergent movement.
Tony talked about the role we have as ambassadors of the good news of reconciliation. As Christians we tend to associate with people who agree with us. The easiest way to keep the peace is to choose a pre-determined set of beliefs and try and stick to those. When we start to get to know each other more we find that there’s a lot more variety in the way people think and act. And as a result we have a lot to learn about being honest and respectful with one another. I liked Tony’s response to a question about “testing the spirits”, in which he talked about assuming the best about God’s action in other people, as a way to avoid blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
Generations in Conversation
While there’s a higher number of Gen X leaders involved in the ‘emerging church’ movement, it’s become clear that people of any age are interested in exploring different ways of being church. The Emergent Village connection grew out of the Gen X leaders called together by the Leadership Network in the USA. The initial hope was that these young emerging leaders would show us how to attract the next generation. Conversations made it clear however that generational distinctives are dwarfed by the more significant changes that come under the “Postmodern Turn”. So while it’s a group of Gen Xers who bring the generational values of cynicism about authority and a search for authenticity over excellence to their conversation, there are many older and younger people who share their journey.
A number of people found it helpful to explore what ‘emerging church’ might look like in reality in one of the communities associated with the Emergent movement. We looked at Solomon’s Porch, exploring the connection between relational theology, liturgy and couches. I suspect some were quite pleased to find the occasional flaw in the methodology. These “Emergents” are human after all.
Tony and I quickly became fellow travelers, sharing the challenges of transition. We spent time chasing a missing suitcase (see photo above), left by the flight attendant on the tarmac in Sydney. We went to the gym together, spent time walking the beach, and shared a few meals. In that time, I observed humility and honesty along with a passion for exploring truth. I picked up a few new phrases and words, like “ontological superiority” (our obsession with clergy), and discursive (Tony’s tendency to keep talking when asked questions). Tony’s a provocateur (look that one up) who gets people thinking. Good on ya mate!
See Tony’s blog at tonyj.net for his reflections on his tour of Australia, and check out his latest book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.