Emergents, meet saints! The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past

A few years back the good people at www.christianhistory.net allowed me to do a brief series of “musings of a Christian history professor.” Thinking of my enjoyable chat yesterday over at the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort, I was reminded of this installment, which seemed to resonate with a lot of readers. If you’ve read my recent piece in CT on biography as spiritual discipline or “Top Ten Reasons To Read Christian History,” you’ll recognize some of the themes here:

Dear folks,

Lately my days have been taken up with preparing a book and a course titled Patron Saints for Postmoderns. The project focuses on the lives of Antony of Egypt, Gregory the Great, Margery Kempe, Dante Alighieri, John Comenius, John Newton, Charles Simeon, Amanda Berry Smith, Charles M. Sheldon, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

So the question has haunted me: “Why should Christians today read biographies of ‘dead Christians’ from ages past?”

One particularly forceful answer has hit me from (what some evangelicals might consider) “left field”—the young movement of Emergent Christian thinkers and leaders.

Emergents are folks dissatisfied with the way a lot of evangelicals have been doing church, and they are exploring and suggesting alternatives. From the Emergents’ perspective, the church today has become culturally stale and bland—speaking an out-of-touch conservative language to a post-Christian generation of young people who have never darkened the door of a church in their lives.

This generation, say the Emergents, doesn’t need to hear the old platitudes of a leftover Christian establishment. They need instead to hear the trumpet call of the gospel—a new song for new people. To really reach them, we must re-tool church for the new realities of a postmodern world. We must re-translate the gospel for a different breed of unbeliever.

Not only that, warn the Emergents, but we can’t impose a one-size-fits-all approach on this new evangelistic situation. We need to find new ways to translate and transmit the gospel. New gospel translations. The need is as old as Christianity itself. It crops up in almost every generation, from the first century to this week. Andrew Walls launches his justly acclaimed The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Orbis, 1996) by giving us a thrilling “aerial survey of church history,” in which we see Christianity’s two-thousand-year odyssey not as a single story neatly tied up with a bow, but as a series of radical, almost cataclysmic cultural translations.

The church, says Walls, translated itself from a Jewish to a Roman “idiom” after the fall of Jerusalem; from Roman to German after the fall of Rome; from Irish to English through the savvy mission of Augustine of Canterbury and Gregory the Great; and so down to today. Today, the indigenous theologians of Africa are facing and addressing questions completely beyond the ken of the Western missionaries who first brought word of Jesus to that continent—and indeed of most Western Christians today. Questions like “can I approach the communion table after sexual intercourse?” “What do we require of a man with several wives who has converted to Christianity, when any wife he divorces will face extreme economic hardship?” And so continues the process of “gospel translation.”

Now it seems that all of Walls’s historic cultures and a thousand more, and every imaginable “sub-culture” to boot, are swirling, clashing, and mixing in the new American generation—a most disorienting sensation for everyone, but especially for those with no rootage in Christ.

The Emergents seem to me to have it right: No single program or rulebook can possibly speak to the hearts of this diversely gifted, diversely perceptive, and diversely wounded young generation who yearn for spiritual fulfillment yet deeply distrust “organized religion.” We need to reassess—to find new models of creative ministries.

What to do in such a time? This is a time for stories. Maybe stories from history, “straight up”—carefully researched and narrated by the scholars who have given their lives to unearthing and interpreting historical evidence and shaping the clearest, most accurate and unbiased story they can out of the shards and shadows of the past. Maybe edifying allegories, plays, and tales of various kinds.

And maybe, too, the life stories of those “dead Christians” who translated the Gospel for their own generations—forcing the church in their times to shake itself out of deep ruts and see the world in new, challenging lights. Maybe these lives can teach us something about how to translate the Gospel for the lost of our own new patchwork, post-Christian generation.

Since a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work—there are no “ten steps to saving the post-Christian generation,” whatever the megachurch pundits tell us—why not dive into the lives of Christians past and see how they engaged their own cultures?

This is not just some nostalgic sentiment of a crusading historian. OK, I am a crusading historian. But I’m not engaged in some antiquarian pursuit—trying to get people to read history because it is vaguely “inspiring” or because we ought to treat our ancestors as squeaky-clean heroes.

Rather, we need to encounter the people from our own Christian “family history”—wounded, crotchety, and wrongheaded though they sometimes are—because our Christian faith is a historical faith. Jesus was once incarnated in history, as a first-century Jew from Nazareth. Ever since, he has been incarnated again—through his body, the always culturally located (and always sin-tainted) church. The Apostle Paul talked about the hand not saying to the eye, “I don’t need you.” Well, most of our “body parts” lived long before we were born. We ignore them at our own risk.

Grace and peace to the Tender Twigs and Budding Tips of the Christian family tree—who draw strength from the Root, and now need also to draw strength from the Branches,

Chris Armstrong
Bethel Seminary

6 responses to “Emergents, meet saints! The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past

  1. Pingback: Grateful to the dead

  2. As this inevitable pendulum swing continues to level out, I think that you will find less of the extremes that may be currently easier to hear in the emerging church conversation. As you said, it’s only some of the emergents who dismiss entire phases of Christianity. To my mind, the Great Apostasy is mankind (or myself), and I must start from that point- always and repeatedly.

  3. Cindy,

    Thanks so much for your response. I’d love to hear what you think of the book once you read it! I hope the Emergents will be able to become less modern (and of course more informed by past insights and traditions) without throwing out the real Spirit-guided and God-informed modern advances in thinking (hard sciences, social sciences, technology, etc. as well as political, social, moral, philosophical thought) and even church. I get nervous whenever I see blanket condemnations of a whole period–some Emergents talk as though the Enlightenment, or Constantinian Christianity, or fill-in-the-blank . . . were the Great Apostasy. Seems a weak view of God’s ability to work in his church in every era. I think we’ve got to be alert to God’s work in all times and places–even (or especially) the ones that may seem oppressive or particularly broken to us personally.

  4. Chris,
    I’m anxious to read your book!

    You might say that emergents feel the church today has become spiritually stale and that, following a massive deconstruction which peels away layer after layer of calloused, habitual and un-useful activity, we do, in fact, find ourselves looking to the church fathers and early traditions for guidance. It’s probably more incidental in the act of re-construction that the resulting presentation of the gospel is (hopefully) offered with a new and more relevant voice for today.

    While perhaps only a relatively small percentage of folks who become part of the emerging church spend much time considering our historical faith, it is that very process that will continue to guide us. Some would say, in fact, that the emergent church is about becoming less modern rather than more so.

    So- again- thanks for your book. I look forward to reading it.

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