Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emergence and the ELCA Constitution

As a Voting Member at the upcoming ELCA Churchwide Assembly I've been sent an entire REAM of reading material from our beloved Churchwide organization to plow through in the next two weeks. On the very first page of this tome is a footnote to a paragraph in the ELCA constitution (I was still reading the footnotes on page viii, not so much 100 pages later). This footnote contained the following text that describes the purpose of the ELCA:

To participate in God’s mission, this church shall:

a. Proclaim God’s saving Gospel of justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith alone, according to the apostolic witness in the Holy Scripture, preserving and transmitting the Gospel faithfully to future generations.

b. Carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all.

c. Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, caring for the sick and the aged, advocating dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs.

d. Worship God in proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments and through lives of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, witness, and service.

e. Nurture its members in the Word of God so as to grow in faith and hope and love, to see daily life as the primary setting for the exercise of their Christian calling, and to use the gifts of the Spirit for their life together and for their calling in the world.

f. Manifest the unity given to the people of God by living together in the love of Christ and by joining with other Christians in prayer and action to express and preserve the unity which the Spirit gives.
A couple of weeks ago (on the plane to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering) I read Phyllis Tickle's book "The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why"--one of the best books I have ever read. As I read this section from the ELCA Constitution (and I may well be the only person alive to have ever read both documents) I couldn't help but notice a connection between the ELCA's bullet points on how the ELCA lives out our purpose, and the four quadrants of Christianity that Tickle points out in chapters 6 and 7 in the section on "The Great Emergence: Where is it Going?"

Tickle reflects on four primary expressions of Christianity, which she labels "Conservatives," "Renewalists," "Social Justice Christians," and "Liturgicals." Tickle's contends that while one could pretty safely park denominations in the 20th Century into one or the other of these quadrants--there is something happening now (in fact, emerging) in the place where these four strands come together that is blurring these distinctions. At the same time as this "whatever it is" emerges, some Christians in each of these quadrants are reacting away from the center to their own corners--"liturgicals" emphasising proper worship, "social justice Christians" to being even more justice oriented, etc. And yet, amidst the reactionaries, a new emergent form of Christian faith is being born--drawing on and incorporating all these strands and becoming something more than simply the sum of its parts. And, according to a recent interview, Tickle sees this emergent Christianity as on its way to becoming the dominant form of Christianity in North America by 2050,

When I read the section from the ELCA constitution I quoted above, Tickle's four quadrants popped immediately to mind--lining up precisely with the first four ways (a, b, c, and d) the ELCA lives out its purpose in the world. As I ponder the contentious debates we've had over our 20 years as the ELCA, it seems that many of them are really just arguments between the corners of these different quadrants. Sometimes the quadrants team up, in particular I think of the great conflict between the "conservatives" and "renewalists" in the trenches against the "liturgicals" and "social justice" folks at Higgins Road (or perhaps this is just the ALC vs LCA in different garb). It's a battle over which quadrant will rule the ELCA, and what it means to be "truly Lutheran" and with the issue of homosexuality finally on the table--it has become a battle to the death. And yet, even as these battles rage on in our church (as they will for sure in a few weeks on the Churchwide Assembly floor), something else is emerging, a bit under the radar.

I've been a student of emergent forms of Christianity for a while now, and (little did I know) was even experimenting with emergent worship before the term had any sort of widespread cachet. I'm also a big Lutheran theology nerd, and even wrote my MA thesis on different theological approaches to the Lutheran Confessions. All the while, I've had a lingering suspicion that this whole "emergent Christianity thing" (whatever it is) ought to be a slam dunk for a church like the ELCA--but it wasn't until putting these two documents together that I finally figured out why.

First: this ELCA experiment was founded on the idea that these four quadrants could actually live together in one church body. We know that the liturgicals are going to argue with the renewalists, and the conservatives with the social justice folks, and everybody else with each other. But somewhere in the midst of all of this is a different kind of unity, which my teacher Samuel Torvend calls "sacramental unity", that means we all--though different--find our unity not in agreeing with one another but only in Christ. This is (or should be) what the ELCA lives for--and should be nicely tilled soil for emergent forms of Christianity to flourish.

Second: Lutheran theology is fundamentally grounded in Baptism--that amazing, freely given, God moment where grace is poured onto us and into us, freeing us from our fascination with ourselves, filling us with the Holy Spirit, making us one with one another, and sending us forth to live out our vocations in the world.

That's our unique gift as Lutherans in this time and place, I think. We Lutherans live (or could live) in any one of these quadrants or in all of them simultaneously, but always recognizing our underlying unity (item f in the constitutional list) and knowing that it is in the living out of our vocations in the world (item e) that this comes to fullest expression. What if we could reclaim our theological grounding in the vocational calling of all Christians (whatever quadrant your particular calling falls into)? What if we could remember that the church exists not where things are kept the way they have always been or even in the way which most challenges the status quo, but where the Good News of Jesus is proclaimed in ways that people can actually be encountered by it and the Sacraments administered in ways that people can actually be transformed by them?

Phyllis Tickle in the interview I mentioned above, says that denominations have perhaps 18 months to realize what is happening in emergent forms of Christianity and be a part of it or they will miss the boat. My fear is that the next few weeks of the Churchwide Assembly will be so dominated by the "corners" of these four quadrants that the growing emergent center will brushed aside--and by the time we recover from our battle, the time to be a positive force in emergent Christianity will have passed. I think this is our moment to claim this constitutional identity for its true power--to be a multivalent church in which this emergent seed can flourish.

The question is, will we grasp after the false unity that comes from everyone agreeing entirely with one another (which, when it fails, will surely lead to splintering the quadrants) or will we embrace the true sacramental unity that comes from living together in Christ despite our deep differences? Will we embrace all six of these "ways we participate in God's mission" or will we fight so hard for the one we think is most important that the others simply head off to do their own thing? And what will happen to theologically conservative, liturgical, renewalist, social justice, vocational, ecumenical Lutheran Christians like myself?

I have great hope that if our ELCA is able to grasp this moment, that we could be a leading force in living together faithfully in this emergent Christian era--and infusing this often root-less movement with a theological framework, a sacramental worldview, and a vocational way of being in the world. But I also know (as Ruban Duran likes to say) that "God is going to do what God is going to do. The only question is, do we want to be a part of it or not." I for one, want to be a part of it, and I want my church to be too.


  1. Good stuff.

    I haven't studied or participated in the emergent movement as you have, but I agree that it has in it something we in the ELCA can use - a clarity and passion for ministry. I don't necessarily buy Tickle's 18-month countdown - seems an arbitrary number, if you ask me, particularly considering that the church is nearly 2000 years old and has witnessed other challenging times and has survived. But I think this next generation of church leaders, born in that same generational stew that gave birth to the emergent movement and coming to faith and leadership in the church years following the merger, will - by the Spirit - lead this church into a faithful future.

    That being said, I am skeptical of some emergent forms. We must remember that the emergent movement was born mostly in an Evangelical context. For example, claiming liturgical forms is a new thing for most evangelicals, yet it is something that we've been doing for centuries. We can't simply import iPods and projectors and fashionable skinny 20-somethings into our church's worship life and expect a Reformation.

    (Hehe ... I know I'm being a bit snarky, but we Lutherans took the latest innovation from the Evangelicals - contemporary worship - in the 1980s and A) really killed it and B) divided lots of congregations with worship wars. I'm not sure we can just adopt the next latest Evangelical innovation and import it into our Lutheran churches ...).

    A few years ago I spent a few blog posts exploring the Emergent movement ... here's one post I wrote about Lutheran charisms and ministry with post-moderns (


  2. Chris, thanks for your comment.

    I agree that much of what passes for "Emergent" stuff these days is really just an attempt to lay a new hipster template on top of an underlying church growth, seeker friendly, rope-em-in-however-you-can-and-get-them-converted kind of model. As an overweight, 30-something, nerdy guy (though with an iPod) I sincerely hope one doesn't have to be a skinny 20-something with a soul patch to be a real Christian these days. =)

    I think one of the main "emergent" insights for me is exactly why the "contemporary worship" thing has been such a disaster, and why "hipster worship" would similarly be a disaster if we just do a cut and paste. The key to "emergent" Christianity, I think, is that it "emerges"; as in it is profoundly contextual. The reason Church of the Apostles in Seattle works is not that Karen Ward has discovered some form of perfect 21st Century worship--but she has helped emerge the kind of church that speaks precicely to the 20- and 30-something, Fremont neighborhood dwelling, given up on church as it is, art community, coffee shop hanging out crowd that lives, works, and encounters God in that place. To just copy what COTA (or any other emerging ministry) is doing is to miss the point entirely. We can steal ideas from each other to be sure, but only to incarnate them in the places and with the people who gather where we are.

    This is another reason why I find all this extremely Lutheran. The forms, the traditions, even the liturgy is all meant to proclaim Christ in our time and place, and where it doesn't we are free to drop, add, or transform these gifts so that they make sense wherever we find ourselves--and so that the Good News of Jesus can actually be heard. Unfortunately, this is way harder than just "doing what we have always done" or "buying on to the latest and greatest program" and involves real down and dirty theological reflection, reading of context, and proclaiming the Gospel so that people can be encountered by God in ordinary stuff (and in community). But really, isn't that what this whole Church thing is meant to be about?

  3. Come visit us some time and see how right you are!!


  4. You nailed it, Pastor Erik.

    "Luthermergent" is such a no-brainer when you look at the Lutheran confessions and what emerging church communities are doing. They are beautifully aligned, both in theology and praxis. Obviously there are exceptions, but I think (even more after CWA09) that we have something unique to offer the Protestant / mainline world AND the emerging church world.

    Are you going to Christianity 21 in October?