Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Emerging Church in Rural Ohio

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Oh, the emerging church is just composed of a bunch of hipster types who sit around dissecting U2 songs for spiritual meaning, talk with the local philosophy majors at Starbucks, decorate their worship spaces with swirly avant-garde paintings, and evangelize the local bar scene.” It goes on, but I figured that that was enough for readers to recall the variations that they’ve seen and heard…or perhaps made themselves.

The accusation is borne from a series of stereotypes, to be sure. Apparently everyone associated with the emerging church movement is young, wears a turtleneck, and hangs out in cosmopolitan areas, whether coffeehouses, pubs, art museums, or clubs. Other stereotypes are much more serious: charges of heterodoxy, relativism, and heresy are frequently leveled at those who self-identify as part of the emerging conversation.

Of course, it isn’t just the medium that is attacked, it’s the message itself. In fact, it may be that such accusations about the message stem from what one may see and assume about the medium. Traditional church buildings of the mainline denominations, as well as the church-in-a-box movements inspired by Willow Creek and others, are being counteracted by the popular hangouts located in metropolitan cultural centers. Critics see these new meeting places and the type of crowd it attracts, and begin conjuring their most clever arrangements of such buzzwords as “goatee,” “latte,” and “arty.”

And at least in the sense that these accusations and buzzwords come from viewing groups of younger Christians in urban hangouts and reading all the “success stories,” I’m beginning to agree with them.

Hear me out on this. I’m not critiquing the medium or message of these churches. I love the idea of incarnational community, evangelism, and service. I love the use of popular media and meeting people in their own context. How this piece of the movement could come under the fire that it has is actually quite strange to me. This piece is inspired by Jesus born fully human, fully Galilean, fully Jewish, as well as by Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. It makes a lot more sense than to just drop a vacuous message in people’s laps and expect them to catch on without appreciating and speaking to their unique place in the world.

So this article isn’t about that at all. What I’m writing is that I’ve realized that the emerging church has somewhat earned these stereotypes of the beatnik poet reading scripture to bongos.

It all began when I picked up the excellent attempt at summation of this movement by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, simply entitled Emerging Churches. If you are not familiar with this work, Gibbs and Bolger profile numerous faith communities that identify themselves with the emerging movement and draw out some common themes. Among these themes are that emerging churches attempt to incarnate the gospel in their own unique settings, recognize human beings as creatures gifted by God to create new expressions of faith, and strive to forge communities of deep mutuality. Again, I cannot disagree with these themes and see plenty of Biblical and theological warrant for them.

It was when I began to notice the particulars of the included examples that the questions came. I noticed where these communities are located: Columbus, Santa Monica, Hollywood, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Only two American cities included in the book would not be considered large. Otherwise, where are the emerging churches and missional communities in rural Ohio, in Appalachia, in the small towns of Iowa, Kansas, or Montana? This is not to pick on Gibbs and Bolger’s book…with few exceptions, the half-dozen or more books on my shelf profiling emerging churches come from large metropolises and boast of their connections to “the scene.”

One possibility is that I simply haven’t read the right books. Another is that there really aren’t that many churches attempting missional engagement. Still a third possibility is that churches in smaller areas and engaging their communities in ways other than plugging into the local arts hotspots aren’t getting the same recognition or coverage.

We can easily rule out the second possibility. All churches with which I’ve ever been associated as a pastor or layperson express, however nominally, a desire to be part of the larger community and identify themselves as part of the local culture. And I’m open to suggestions for books that may include more small-town and rural emerging churches. All in all, however, I’m willing to bet that the best possibility out of the three is the third.

I refuse to believe, as I’m betting many reading this do, that the emerging church is, or can be, only a big-city phenomenon. In fact, I and many others need to refuse this notion because many more of us than are known serve churches that are located on county roads, in the midst of cornfields, or in places with populations under 10,000 people. These local cultures of small-town sports and NASCAR and Harley-Davidson, of garden clubs and heritage festivals and factories and depressed neighborhoods next to new subdivisions, yearn for and are able to receive a genuine incarnation of God’s kingdom just as much as the punk rock kids and ravers in downtown Chicago or Minneapolis.

So let’s hear about the emerging Texas pastor who preaches in cowboy boots. Let’s hear about the group of young people ministering to others in their trailer park. Let’s hear about the church that gathers next to the lakeside cabin in the woods for baptisms. Let’s hear about the work being done with factory workers, miners, and farmers. Let’s hear about relating to attendees of bluegrass festivals and county fairs, of churches started in barns and storefronts, of conversations in taverns and greasy spoon diners and truck stops.

Let’s hear about pastors whose hearts burn for these types of places where postmodernism isn’t the label used, but where people may wonder every bit as much whether Jesus has anything worthwhile to say to them. These are places where there may be less competition by other religious worldviews and more by economics, local or national politics, or “this is just the way it is.”

The opportunity to broaden perceptions about this movement is there. The stories and examples exist.

One doesn’t need a big city to do what emerging churches do. But in these smaller places, we still need to do it.

And then write about it.

This article can also be viewed in Next Wave's August 2007 issue.