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'Emergent Church' v. Fundamentalism

By The Rev. Howard Bess
June 13, 2009

Editor’s Note: Over the past few decades, Christian Evangelicalism has claimed a prominent place in American religious – and political – life, but some of its harsher elements are now being challenged by adherents to what's been called an “emergent church.”

In this guest essay – a follow-up of an earlier report about this development – the Rev. Howard Bess recounts some personal reactions to his previous article:

Three weeks ago I wrote a column about the emergent churches in America. I wrote the column as a report, not as an opinion. I credited Professor Scott McKnight of North Park University in Chicago and cited his eight characteristics of the emergent church.

The Emergent Church column produced the largest response that I have ever had from any of my newspaper writings. Apparently readers forwarded the column to friends, and it was posted on many blogs and internet news services.

Responses came from California to New Jersey and from Texas to Michigan. The responses were from young and old and from Caucasians to African Americans.

I am coming to an unscientific conclusion that something basic is happening on the religious scene in America.

I am choosing to share three specific responses:

John Chuchman is a retired Ford executive and a devout Roman Catholic. In retirement he has earned a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Ministries and gives his time as a Hospice volunteer. He is a skilled writer and in 2006 published a book entitled I Love My Church, But Oh My God!

John sent me his own vision of an emergent Roman Catholic Church. It is two pages long. The following words reveal the tenor of his entire message to his church:
“We compare what Jesus had in mind with what is going on in our churches, and we see a need to start over. We want a fresh start with serious intent to follow Jesus.

“We want a much broader definition of what it means to be accepted in the family of God.

“Thinking and speaking and writing about God as an exclusively male entity is demeaning and inconsistent with our ideas of human value and worth.”

John indicated that he was going to attempt to give his essay a broad distribution. The piece deserves to be read by many.

Robert Jensen teaches at University of Texas in Austin. He teaches media law, ethics and politics. He grew up in North Dakota and was nurtured in the Christian Faith in the First Presbyterian Church of Fargo.

In the process of his educational journey, Robert Jensen left the Church and the Christian Faith. Now at age 50 he has reluctantly returned to church seeking a faith that makes sense in this world.

Jensen has written a book that was published earlier this year, entitled All My Bones Shake. Dr. Jensen graciously sent me a review copy of the book, and I am well into reading the volume.
He summarizes the concern of religion with three questions: How did the world come to be?  What is our fate after death?  How shall we live while we are here?

The first two questions are not his concerns. The third question is central to his life journey. Jensen left me with four challenges:

I can be a man, or I can be a human being.
I can be white, or I can be a human being.
I can be an American, or I can be a human being.
I can be affluent, or I can be a human being.

Dr. Jensen’s concerns are right at the heart of the emergent church.

Out of writing a column about the emergent church, I have ended up with two books that I believe are worthy of my reading.

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is the third respondent that I have chosen to share. He is African American, 75 years old, a retired United Methodist clergyperson who lives in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

He served multi-racial/multi-culture churches as pastor. He served as a District Superintendent and is a founder of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church. Gilbert was a foot soldier in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, participated in the Selma to Montgomery March, and the March on Washington.

Pastor Gilbert wrote a response to each of Scot McKnight’s eight characteristics of the emergent church. I share with you his response to the first, “rejection of Bible inerrancy.”

To make his point, Caldwell cited Howard Thurman, one of the truly great African American clergypersons of the 20th century. Thurman said that his grandmother told him “Never read the writings of the Apostle Paul, because he is responsible for the words ‘Slaves, be obedient to your earthly masters.’”

Whenever Thurman shared the story of his grandmother, he would then quote the spiritual that says “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

Pastor Gilbert continued “I contend that a belief in Bible inerrancy with the fundamentalism that accompanies it has made hypocrites of those who proclaim it.”

When I read his commentary on all eight of the characteristics, I concluded, Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is an emergent, who was well ahead of his time.
My reaction to all of this is very positive.

John Chuchman wants a new day in his church, a new day that is marked by a serious following of Jesus of Nazareth. Robert Jensen wants a new day in which his life can have meaning in a very real world. Gilbert Caldwell wants a new day in which race is irrelevant. All three have chosen to be a part of churches as they seek the new day.
I too want the new day of an emergent church.  I am willing to be identified as an emergent.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is           

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