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The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier
The emergent church movement in Christianity has evolved a new way of living the faith over the last decade that has more in common with open source network and wikis than it does with religious institutions. Rooted in the belief that Christianity is a dynamic faith that changes in each generation, emergent goes beyond church trappings, hierarchies and statements of faith to create a culture of open access, trust, mutual accountability, agility, connectivity, and messiness. Tony Jones, an expert on the U.S. church landscape and a leading voice in the movement, describes the future of American Christianity in his new book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, $22.95, March 2008).
It’s not just about making the church relevant to young people, though emergent does skew younger than the average American churchgoer. It’s a total re-examination of the gospel that has resulted in a mash-up of old and new, of theory and practice, and of mainline, evangelical, and increasingly, Roman Catholic Christians. It features innovative communities of faith, creative forms of monasticism and other ancient spiritual practices, adventurous theology, embrace of new media, and disaffection with politics as usual.
Postmodern and post-evangelical, its adherents defy left-right categories. Emergent continues to grow unabated, even as it’s dismissed as a fad by some and condemned as a hotbed of liberal theology by others.
The phenomenon is difficult to nail down. Its open-source nature makes it hard to say how big it is, how many churches there are, who’s in and who’s out. “The emergent church doesn’t act like previous ecclesial movements,” Jones says. It is not a denomination, so
Emergent Village, the nonprofit organization that acts as a clearinghouse, purposely doesn’t count churches or people. Nor does it have a statement of faith.
In The New Christians, Jones examines the emergent church’s core theological beliefs and spiritual practices. He profiles four congregations: Jacob’s Well in Kansas City, Journey in Dallas, Church of the Apostles in Seattle, and the church he belongs to, Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. He visited each one, interviewing members and holding focus groups to learn what emergent Christianity offers these people.
In these churches, Jones finds “feral Christians, pushing over fences and roaming around at the margins,” people who feel homeless in the American church. He shows that emergent churches share little in the way of leadership structures, architecture or forms of worship. What they share is a sensibility. They are committed to values such as relationship, openness and hospitality. They quest after truth using art, music, and poetry, embracing both new technology and ancient spiritual practices.
The emergent phenomenon is a reaction to the bureaucratic, institutional and dogmatic crust that has grown over the Christian gospel. Regardless of the “isms” that form—liberalism, fundamentalism, denominationalism—the gospel will eventually explode through. “At its essence, emergent Christianity is an effort by people in a particular time and place to respond to the gospel as it breaks through the age-old crusts,” Jones says.