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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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What the Heck Is the Emerging Church? A “Velvet Elvis” Answer

I always like new ideas, and I relish nothing more than watching big, paradigm-shifting movements overturn the status quo. (This probably has something to do with my birth-order position as a “rebellious” second child, but anyways.) Emergent Christianity has tickled my interest recently because it is just that: a completely new way of doing things. The question for me has been, what the heck is emergent Christianity?

Blogger Helen Mildenhall (in addition to Google) referred me to this article, “Five Streams of the Emergent Church” in Christianity Today, which was helpful yet not entirely satisfying. I’ve also been poking around the Emergent Village website, and I joined their Facebook group, where I was befriended (both in the literal Facebook sense and the more figurative human sense) by Sam Crum, who planted The River, an emergent church in Milton, Florida. I asked Sam for some book suggestions, and he recommended Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a couple years, waiting for a reason to read. What follows, then, is my attempt to understand emerging Christianity via Velvet Elvis.

The first hump in the road was the weird typeface. And the fact that the chapters started on the wrong side of the page. And that a lot of paragraphs had only one sentence in them. This seemed to confirm one of my sneaking worries: that Emerging Christianity may be mostly about aesthetics, that is, pastors with cool hair and hip glasses delivering the Good News via Twitter and calling it revolutionary.

But as I read more, my worries settled down. At moments Bell, who founded Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1999, startled me with his approach. This became particularly apparent in his thoughts on the Bible, as when he asks this provocative question: “Is the Bible the best God can do? With God being so massive and awe-inspiring and full of truth, why is his book capable of so much confusion?”

It’s almost a relief to hear someone ask that question, as I’ve often pondered a similar question about the Qur’an, especially when considering the way certain verses lend themselves to unpleasant interpretation (such as the verse that’s been used to justify husbands hitting their wives.)  Couldn’t God in his omniscience come up with a way of communicating that was less open to human interpretation and therefore failure?

Bell chooses for an example a verse from Leviticus that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He writes, “Who could possibly have any sort of problem with this verse? And how could someone mess this up? What could be complicated about loving your neighbor?” (I’m leaving out the paragraph breaks here.) But he points out that in fact, the verse raises a lot of questions: How should the word “neighbor” be defined? Does it literally mean the people who live down the street from you? Does it mean everyone on the planet?

Bell’s point is that the Bible does not speak for itself — every teaching of the Bible is an interpretation. Bell even mentions how irritated he is when people say to him something like, “I like your church because you just teach the Bible.” The problem with a statement like that, writes Bell, is that it ignores the fact that interpretation is required. “To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of own culture or background or issues into it and come out with a ‘pure’ or ‘exact’ meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible,” he writes.

Now, I know next to nothing about literary criticism and folks like Derrida or Foucault, but that statement strikes me as almost a definition of post-modernism: the challenging of “objective” interpretations. And last time I looked, conservatives were all about attacking relativism. Therefore, I conclude in my very simplistic way that Bell is a complex guy: a Christian, an evangelical, a philosophical progressive.

Then he goes further, writing this: “The Bible did not drop out of the sky. … The Bible originated from real people in real places at real times.” That may not sound strange to you, but it does sound strange to me, again because I associate evangelicals with the voices I hear on religious talk radio, denouncing the academic studies of the Bible that have led to the very same conclusion that real people wrote the Bible, each in their own context.

Bell is up front that each author  who had a hand in the Bible also had an “agenda” — and this doesn’t bother him. Rather it is a starting point, as he envisions these authors transmitting some piece of truth, some real experience of God. And Bell writes about his own experiences of God: preaching for the first time beside a lake as a young adult, or sledding with his kids, or having dinner with friends at his favorite restaurant.

Bell of course doesn’t claim that his moments of feeling something “more” are on an equal footing with say, Moses ascending Mount Sinai, but he does see his own faith life as somehow continuous with the lives of faith in the Bible. What they have in common is the presence of God. “The Bible is a collection of stories that teach us about what it looks like when God is at work through actual people,” he writes.

And “actual people” in Bell’s estimation are broken (in the Christian sense), imperfect and constantly in search of something whole. Bell wants to have a community — and has tried to create one at Mars Hill, it seems — where that imperfection is okay, where questions are okay, where God is in the present, not in the past only.

Bell has some other pithy lines, many of them aimed at the fellow evangelicals he seems to have lost patience with (”It is possible for a movie to be a ‘Christian’ movie and to be a terrible movie”) as well as other statements of progressive faith (”I live with the understanding that truth is bigger than any religion and the world is God’s and everything in it.”)

What’s confusing for me sometimes is how emerging Christianity seems to overlap with so many other trends, namely, the flexidoxy David Brooks talked about, Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con ideas, the whole “evangelical left.” The basic trend here seems to be two elements: orthodoxy and liberalism combined in novel ways. I guess the only news here is that it seems new: We are used to social liberals being religious liberals, Reform Jews and Unitarian Universalists being Exhibit A. Now we’re seeing something else. And the ideas of the emerging movement seem portable to other faiths; Synagogue 3000 has documented at least 80 communities nationwide that it considers to be examples of “Emergent Judaism.”

I’m left with questions about certain specific issues, like gay marriage or even plain old gender roles. I’ve noticed a lack of female faces among emerging church writers and leaders. Tony Jones, author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, however, was kind enough to point me toward two female Emergent leaders: Nanette Sawyer, pastor of the Wicker Park Grace community in Chicago, and Danielle Shroyer, pastor of Journey (”a holistic missional Christian community in Dallas, Texas.”)

So it looks like this movement has a lot of complexity. Here’s to learning more about it! If you’ve had an experience in the emerging movement, please share it here — it seems like a trend you can only understand by talking to lots and lots of individual people. Until then, I’ll leave you with some final words from Rob Bell:

I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties. By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we are going to be okay.

There Are 4 Responses So Far. »

  1. I have been part of this “conversation” for almost three years now, and I resonate a lot with what Bell writes as well. I think you are right that their are some other influences besides just post-modernity that has helped shaped the conversation; influences that many consider “liberal” or what have you. I think though, as the emergent conversation seems to have originated out of the growing dissatisfaction of western evangelicals as they try and navigate a “post-modern shift” there became an awareness that evangelicalism was not the center of orthodoxy.

    If you listen to some of the deeper theological discussions, for instance, you will hear leanings into some eastern orthodox views as just one example of this. Clearly, the postmodern conversation then wants revisit many things that our closest evangelical parents had ruled out. For the modern evangelical this is a threat to a modern evangelical’s sense of orthodoxy. But, again I think if you listen carefully you will see a great respect for Christian orthodoxy from an historical perspective beyond the relative newness of evangelicalism.

    I think as a whole the emergent church conversation among more post-modern leaning evangelicals has served as a catulas to at least partially remove the veil that prevented us as modern people from recognizing our own modern, western, and evangelical lens when looking at faith. This lens has made the modern/western evangelical less “objective” concerning faith than they believed themselves to be. This is particularly true for the more fundamentalist leaning evangelicals who almost deny subjectivity all together and hold their views to be “absolute.”

    You are right that the conversation is a complex thing. I think this is a refreshing reminder that life and faith has always been complex things, no matter how much some religious perspectives want to oversimplify them.

    Thanks for your reflection on this.



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  4. Hello there!

    Hmm… well, I would say that the Bible was indeed the best God could in partnership with humankind. I would venture that God really wants to involve us in His work, and that is why we were giving the honor of writing down his word. Is it perfect? Well, in a sense it is, because it is absolutely everything we need. At the same time there are probably minor flaws, at least if you don’t know the original Hebrew/Greek.

    Yes, it seems that the Bible can cause confusion, but I tend to think that a person seeking the truth will find it, but if a person is seeking to prove their own ways to be true… well, that is destructive. A better point to consider is that God does not force himself on us. There is so much evidence that the Bible is true, and historically accurate, but if a person just decides to ignore it, they can certainly find ways to convince themselves otherwise. God values a certain amount of faith, but he also provides a sturdy foundation for that faith.

    This is something I found recently; (just before reading your article actually)

    If you believe what you like in the gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.

    …the emergent church is the latest version of liberalism. The only difference is that old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accomodates postmodernity.
    Mark Driscoll

    Emerging Churches define themselves as those:
    1. Who take the life of Jesus as a model way to live
    2. Who transform the secular realm
    3. As they live highly communal lives.
    Because of these three activities, emerging churches
    4. Welcome those who are outside
    5. Share generously
    6. Participate
    7. Create
    8. Lead without control and
    9. Function together in spiritual activities.
    Boiling it down to one sentence: Emerging Churches are…communities who practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.
    Comment: please notice that all of the above emerging principles are not about what Christ has done for us, but what we do for him. The true gospel is news about what Christ has already done for us as a Savior, rather than instruction and advice about what you are to do for God. The primacy of his accomplishment, not ours, is the essence of our faith. The gospel of Christ above all brings news, rather than instruction.

    (Back to my own words.)

    Well, I hope you haven’t taken offense to any of this, as I don’t mean to come down on you, I really just want to offer a different look at all of this, as I believe the Emergent Church can be dangerous when you get to it’s core. A friend of mine’s sister has been doing a lot of research on the topic, and some of the people in my own denomination are going emergent, subtly mixing in doctrines apposing the ones we hold to be important.

    I guess I’ll leave it at that for now. Cheers!

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