The American frontier was often a dark and scary place for those back home. If you weren’t adventurous enough to head out west on your own, you sat back home and worried about those who did. Tony Jones tells a story of a mother and father grief-stricken at the unknown: their daughter and her new husband had ventured to the new frontier, and for months they had no word from their daughter. They did of the frontier’s horrors in the newspaper: disease, extreme weather conditions, poor health and fights with the Indians.
In The New Christians, Jones introduces the world to the new frontier of emerging Christianity. Emerging church leaders, Jones says, are moving their churches to focus more on outward, Gospel-inspired ideas than on self-preservation.
Jones and others have received much flak from prominent Protestant leaders. He jokes that any church leader reading The New Christians would receive less criticism by covering the book with a dirty magazine than to show what they are reading. A pastor joining Jones on a convention panel, warned the audience, “It’s dangerous…if these Emergent guys get their way, pretty soon we’ll be [practicing bestiality].” Jones strongly denies this claim, but acknowledges the source of these fears. “The primary concern for traditional evangelicals,” Jones says, “is the specter of relativism.”
For centuries, people have taken their faith quite seriously, and Jones is unabashedly turning his boat in a different direction. He writes of someone who likened the traditional church to an ocean liner. One day, a small group boarded a life raft and set off in a new direction, only to find that “scores of others” wanted to follow. This “life raft” is taking faith more seriously, calling people to a deeper understanding of their belief and calling into question any “easy answer.”
For many of his opponents, particularly evangelical megachurch pastors, the message of the Christian faith has been simplified in order to draw a Gen X crowd back into the church. That worked, Jones said, for that generation, but others want something deeper.
Emergent is not the faith of a church claiming to set itself apart from culture while promoting Hollywood blockbusters (think Evan Almighty or Passion of the Christ), selling their books to discount retailers (Joel Osteen, Rick Warren) or “reveling in their newfound influence…on Capitol Hill,” Jones writes. This is a faith that finds spirituality in all of culture, finding hope in the redemptive, humanizing side of Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, balancing out the chastising voices of Randy, Paula and Simon.
The PR company’s press release said that Jones visited four emergent churches across the country, so I expected a case study of sorts. What Jones delivers is a story: of the early days, before anyone called this “Emergent”; of the detractors and his response to their position; and the stories of these four churches.
In the early days of the American frontier, dispatches were the source of what people in the East learned about the Wild West. Here’s what Jones says, in the dispatched from The New Christians, the Emerging Church is all about:
Emergents find little importance in the differences between the various flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements.
Emergents see God’s activity in all aspects of culture and reject the sacred-secular divide.
Emergents embrace the whole bible, the glory and the pathos.
Emergents downplay — or outright reject — the difference between clergy and laity.
Emergent Churches don’t necessarily resemble typical Christianity in their gatherings, although some aspects are familiar. Tim Keel, pastor at Jacob’s Well in Kansas City, invites audience participation in his sermon. Journey in Dallas has a podium in the center of the room, surrounded by chairs with a stage on one side, and the band begins with worship music from evangelical recording artists. Karen Ward, pastor-priest of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, VJs the worship service while others take on leadership. At Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, members gather during the week to craft the following week’s sermon.
Emergent Churches may not speak to everyone (although Jones’ fear of his parents disapproval of his church was unfounded: “My parents loved it!!”), but it has drawn in many disenfranchised with traditional forms of church. The New Christians is deeply theological (words about God). It is not a light read or a quick one and will give you a lot to chew on. And you may not agree with everything Jones writes.
In Glenn Beck’s column last week on CNN.com, he told of a theology course he took a few years ago where the professor assigned only the books with which he agreed. Beck asked the professor for a list of books he disagreed with and read those as well. Whether or not you think you might agree with Jones and Emergent, allow yourself the space to read The New Christians and make your own opinion. You might decide to jump off on the life raft.