Hospitality, not marketing

As a Disciples of Christ pastor drawn to the emergent conversation, I’m excited about the enthusiasm surrounding the advent of [D]mergent. But I must also admit that my enthusiasm is a bit guarded. While the conversations I’ve had with several other Disciples who identify with emergence Christianity have been incredibly encouraging, I’ve also had far too many conversations with church leaders who view emergence as the latest trend or fad in which mainliners can get young people in the pews, treating it as nothing more than a church growth gimmick. While some of these conversations are more implicit than others, the logic can basically be summarized as this: (1) Many young evangelicals are leaving their theological roots and are looking for more progressive approaches to the Christian faith;

(2) Mainline churches have a wonderful opportunity of connecting with these young evangelicals because we tend to express the kind of progressive theological ethos they are looking for;

(3) Connecting with these young evangelicals will help strengthen the struggling institutions that we’ve been worried about for so long, and emergents can start carrying on the work we’ve been doing for all of these years (and we can rest assured that the institution we’ve known and loved for so many years will continue on just as we like it).

The first two items are certainly true. Young evangelicals are leaving their roots, and they are looking for communities of faith that express progressive approaches to Christianity. It is definitely in the best interest of progressive congregations to consider the ways they are gifted to offer hospitality to these folks. However, progressives need to be very careful about the problems that come into play if they do this from the mentality described in item three.

For example, we’ve had an emerging community rooted in our church for nearly five years. It was originally started as an effort to extend hospitality to those who have been hurt and alienated by the church and are longing for a more open and inclusive approach to the Christian faith. This emerging community embodies a wonderful place of healing and transformation for many young evangelicals who are cultivating their faith in ways that are new for them, and it has certainly added to the overall life and vitality of our congregation.

However, several of us are beginning to notice that over the last year or so, more and more church members are beginning to wonder when these new participants will begin serving on committees and attending established activities like Sunday School or Disciple Women’s Ministry groups. We’re also hearing more and more murmurs about the way the newer folks don’t contribute financially like the established folks do. And while I am all for cultivating healthy patterns of stewardship (as well as deconstructing myths that established members sometimes live by!), I do wonder if we are forgetting the reasons why we started an emerging community in the first place and are running the risk of using it only as a vehicle in which the congregation might continue as a viable institution in the years ahead.

What is often lost in such situations is the recognition that the congregation is actually continuing on in quite vital ways — just not necessarily in the ways that many established folk expect. The truth of the matter is that the newer participants have built strong bonds of community and have organically developed several engaging ways of cultivating their faith, it’s just that these activities don’t look like the norm, at least not from the vantage point of the established participants. Instead of attending Sunday School, for instance, they meet each Friday at a local fair trade coffee house for theological conversation. Instead of serving on the outreach committee in order to decide what organizations the church budget should support, they developed a community food garden and an anti-racism/pro-reconciliation task force. Instead of serving on the worship committee in order to help set the deacon’s schedule, they gathered for lunch and creatively brainstormed ways that poetry and art from the community could be incorporated into worship.

When progressive congregations extend hospitality to emergents, they shouldn’t view such gestures as tools to further the existing establishment; rather, they need to open themselves to the new things that God is doing and celebrate the ways that emergents — [D]mergents — are helping transform the existing establishment. It’s the difference between hospitality (being open to the other) and marketing (trying to exploit the other for one’s personal gain). To borrow Karen Lebacqz’s words, the “church that genuinely welcomes the stranger does not simply let the stranger into a preformed routine, but accepts that the routine itself may be changed. We cannot cling to the past, or to the way things have always been done, because to do so is to deny the validity of the stranger’s way of being.”

by Phil Snider

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Springfield, Missouri and the coauthor of Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations. He is a graduate of Missouri State University (B.S.), Phillips Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Chicago Theological Seminary (D.Min.).

Phil blogs at www.philsnider.net.