[Warning: I bear no certification to talk about “emergent church” matters. I’m a certifiable theologian with interests in technology and church life — but I’m not the kind of guy who gives influential presentations at Soularize or writes popular essays at TheOoze. Consult official spokespeople for official insight.]
I wrote to Kyle about four possible manifestations of a spirit of “emergence” in an end-of-term email. I suggested to him that the emergent spirit shows itself in breadth and depth of congregational involvement in activities that observers might identify with the church; in lack-of-investment in leadership as power, and strong investment in leadership as voluntary commitment to heightened service and accountability; in worship that in which the congregation senses itself intelligibly involved (not the object of an indifferent display, but participants who understand and relish their roles — whatever those roles may be); and commitment to an understanding of theological truth that attends less vigorously to borders than to satisfactory ways of articulating the truth.
Thus, for the first (“breadth and depth”), I’d argue that “participation” is a wan characterization for distinctive features of emergence in congregations . One can “participate” in pro forma ways that have no real relation to the mode of ecclesial vitality that’s worth bothering to identify as emergent. At any given Episcopal parish, plenty of people participate — but that doesn’t make St. Alphonso’s an emergent Episcopal parish. Congregations marked by a spirit of emergence would have a higher general degree of engagement in various community activities, and more diverse activities associated with congregational life (the poetry readings and gallery activities we hear about, along with more conventional outreach ministries). There might be less (internal) sense of particular behavior as a “church” activity, since it arises readily from the convergent interests and shared commitments of congregants; that would, of course, communicate powerfully the congregation’s sense of who it is and what it stands for, such that interested people might notice and join in.
In other words, I guess that an “emergent” congregation would be recognizable precisely to the extent that its common life doesn’t entail saying “Jesus” all the time — not because Jesus is unimportant to them, but because the congregation’s love for Jesus doesn’t come out explicitly at the bowling alley, or the informal [un]employment counseling get-together, or the bicycling group. That’s not a missed opportunity for evangelism; it’s exactly the kind of deep commitment that will speak for itself, over the long run, if people will stop chattering about Jesus long enough to allow space for a quieter voice.