Posted: October 17, 2008 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
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By Matt Horan

     What would John Wesley do?
     Ironically, the man credited with being the founder of the United Methodist Church wanted no such distinction.  Faced with an Anglican denomination that was doing woefully little for the “least of these” in 18th century Great Britain, Wesley did not leave the church and start a nondenominational congregation a few blocks away.  He simply began living and leading faithfully, led by the Holy Spirit, within his denomination.  At every turn he sought to work within the framework in place.  He urged people who heard his preaching to go to churches on Sunday morning and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion from an Anglican priest–refusing to discount the value of apostolic succession.
     He preached inside and out, to the rich and the poor, to believers and nonbelievers, to Calivinists and Arminians.  He grouped people together into classes, bands, and societies that would offer fellowship, support, prayer, and accountability–because the journey to sanctification is not one that can be walked alone.
     He was incredibly faithful both to God and to his Anglican denomination.  It was only when he could concieve of no other option that he broke with the decrees of the Anglican church.  As tensions increased between Great Britain and the colonists in America, it was more and more difficult to find Anglican priests to go to the New World and offer people the sacraments.  He overstepped his authority and ordained priests himself who would go to the new world to perform the sacraments and even ordain more lay speakers and priests for the colonies.  He did all of this while refusing to break with the Anglican church.  Nor did Martin Luther, for that matter.  Luther was excommunicated, but merely spoke truth to the Catholic powers about the abuses and doctrinal missteps that he saw.
     To be sure, the Emergent Church is hard to define, and even more difficult to identify.  To some it is a style of worship service, to others, it is an alternative to denominations.  It is not a denomination by itself (Though the organization “Emergent Village,” led by Brian McLaren, is a publishing entity, puts on regional conferences around the country, and encourages people to gather in small regional groups or “cohorts” to discuss alternative viewpoints to and plans of action to those of frequently inactive and unimaginative mainline denominations.).  McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” is a dialogue between two characters who represent modern and postmodern thinkers.  It is a dialogue where a formerly conservative, modern thinker’s eyes are opened to other, more progressive points of view.  He sees their merit, and begins to adopt them. 
     I’ve read this book, and it does not ask people to depart from the mainline church.  I’ve read McLaren’s More Ready Thank You Realize and Everything Must Change, and neither of those ask people to leave either.  Other manifestos like Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus but not the Church, David Kinaman’s unChristian, and George Barna and Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity highlight the things about the mainline church that will never draw the next generation of young adults, but none expressly calls for an exodus from the mainline church.  What they all do is cast a vision for the church that could reach this newest generation. 
     Unlike the efforts of nondenominational churches like Willow Creek in Illinois, Saddleback in California, or Northpoint in Georgia to reach “seekers,” the next generation wants something different.  While seekers were sought with worship spaces washed clean of Christian symbolism and denomonational allegiance, this may not work in the future.  The trend is that the coveted 20′ and 30somthings of the early 21st century crave what the ancient church had to offer.  Through the candles and liturgy and icons of the ancient church setting, new worshippers are getting in touch with the passion for justice felt in the early centuries of the church.  Social jusice is king in the 21st century, and as it turns out, Jesus is something of a fan.
     The church that keeps consumers happy is not going to survive long in the new century.  The church that gets in touch with its historic roots of extreme self-sacrifice, deep spirituality, and a passion for social justice is better positioned to welcome young visitors thirsty for a God who cares about AIDS, war, human trafficking, and extreme poverty.
     As emergent authors cast a vision for the church, they accomplish two things.  First, they are getting in touch with what the church should be–aware that it has largely lost its way, compromising the heart of Christ in order to make it easier to become a Christian.  The mainline church can respond in one of two ways: it can embrace its roots and once again press on to make God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven, or it can complain about the disrespect and moral deterioration that they see in the new generation of spiritual journeyers who refuse to darken the doors of the mainline church.
     In Luke 19, Jesus warns that “the rocks will cry out” if people stay quiet and stop sharing the heart of God with the world.  Turns out that the youth of this will will cry out if the mainline church does not.  The advent of more and more nondenominational and emergent churches will continue proportionately to the failure of mainline churches to remember that Jesus came to create a movement that would redeem–that would heal the suffering inflicted on this world by sin.  The Scriptures do not portray a Messiah who was here to pluck “saved” people out of the world ahead of its destruction.  The Messiah came to start a movement of forgiveness, grace, hope, justice, and peace.  That movement will continue with or without the mainline church.  Either the mainline church will cry out, or some other churches will rise up to cry out instead.
     Consider the story of Gamaliel.  When the apostles were dragged before the Sanhedrin for continuing to follow Jesus and win followers to his movement, he stood up and advised them.  “And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.   For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.  After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.  So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
     What should the mainline church do?  Hear carefully the prophetic message that emergent voices offer?  Respect them as possible voices from God?  Denounce them for drawing people away from the mainline church?  Join them in conversation about how to follw Jesus as faithfully as possible? 
     Whatever the mainline church does, the movement of Jesus has been going on for 2000 years, and it will continue.  If the emergent movement is a part of the movement of Christ, then to resist it will be like fighting against God.  If it is heresy, then we should write letters and challenge people to stand firm in the face of false teaching as Paul did when false teachers infiltrated the early church.
     I’ve got to be honest.  So far, the emergent movement and Wesley’s Methodist movement both appear to look a lot like the Jesus movement.  Neither urged an exodus from the mainline church, but we have to remember that if the mainline church doesn’t cry out, God will raise up someone who will.  Wesley never advocated leaving the mainline church–but the mainline church left the early Methodists little choice.  Is history going to repeat itself, or will it teach us something about fighting against God?
     What would John Wesley do? 
     He would offer grace and hope.  He would seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.  Whether or not the mainline church would join him… well, they didn’t really.  So here we are again.  What will the mainline church do this time?  Hopefully they don’t spend much time fighting against God.  That rarely ends well.


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