Faithmatters: Is Presbymergence a promising path?

It is not news that the Emergent Church Movement has been shaking up American Christians who identify themselves as evangelical.


The emergent folks — guided by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Danielle Shroyer, Phyllis Tickle and others — have been doing what leaders do: ask foundational questions about why the church does things the way it does.


As all this has been going on for a decade or more, those of us in mainline churches — if we’ve been paying attention at all — have wondered what the fuss is about. It has looked to many of us as if the emergent movement is simply trying to get churches to quit being so rigid in their theology and to take seriously what we mainliners have long taken seriously — mission, which is to say working to demonstrate in small ways what the reign of God will look like when it finally arrives in full flower.


But it turns out the situation is more complicated than that. There are, in fact, things we mainliners can learn from emergence Christianity, and one good place to start is with a new collection of essays, “The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-traditioning Mainline Practices,” edited by Phil Snider.


The term “hyphenateds” refers to mainliners who have been connecting to the emergent movement and who are trying to draw the two streams into a conversation. In Presbyterian terms, that often means people active in Presbymergent the website of which describes itself as “a place for Presbyterians to engage the conversation surrounding the new emergence of church in the 21st century.”


Although I didn’t find all the essays in “The Hyphenateds” especially helpful, on the whole the book is an excellent place for serious mainliners to start looking at what they can learn from emergence Christianity. And, for sure, we’d better start learning something from someone about how to be the church in the 21st century if we don’t want the decline of mainline Christianity to continue.


In one of the essays, Ross Lockhart, a United Church of Canada pastor, gets to the core of what emergence Christianity might help teach mainliners: “I am longing for the Spirit to move us to a place where evangelism and justice can mutually inform one another, where speaking about Jesus goes hand in hand with living for Jesus.”


His message is clear: With their roots in evangelical Christianity, emergence people are comfortable with the tradition of sharing their faith openly and honestly with others while mainliners, skittish about coming off as aggressive evangelists, are much more comfortable feeding the hungry and housing the homeless as their witness.


But Lockhart is right in wanting to merge those traditions without diminishing either. Indeed, if we mainliners can’t find ways to introduce people to Jesus, who can transform their lives, we’ll continue our long slide toward oblivion. But if we lose our commitment to mission in the process, we’ll abandon a central piece of who we are and who, in fact, we need to be.


So let a thousand emergent-mainline conversations bloom so we can find our way in this new century.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog Read about his latest book E-mail him at