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Come All Ye Faithful

Emerging Church Movement Brings Postmodern Christian Dialogue to Baltimore

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SOUL-PATCH SALVATION: An emerging church group discusses the intersection of religion and the modern world at the Kiss Caf? in Canton.

By Diane Reynolds | Posted 4/2/2008

The tangerine circle cutouts in the wall of Canton's Kiss Café frame talking heads like halos.

It's an eerily fitting image for a group that's discussing how to bring an ancient institution--the Christian church--into the postmodern world. Nine people are gathered here on March 25 for the Emergent Baltimore Cohort's monthly meeting, the second one held at the Kiss Café.

At the meeting the cohort's founder, 35-year-old Tim Hartman, a slim man with heavy glasses, manages to appear simultaneously earnest and hip as he throws out his question to the group: "What does a church that's emerging look like?"

Three years ago--or even less--the words "emerging church" would likely elicit a blank stare. Now, mention the emerging-church movement and people might start talking about Shane Claiborne, author of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, emerging-church guru Brian McLaren's "Everything Must Change" conference, or Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, a sort of cyber café for those interested in the emerging church and its theory.

"There's definitely a growing awareness," Hartman says of the movement, which seeks to draw the modern world closer to Christianity. The emerging church has its roots in the 1990s, according to a history supplied by Emergent Village (www.emergentvillage.com; the site calls itself a "growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ"), and it arose in part from disillusionment with aspects of Christian evangelicalism. Some saw traditional churches as out of sync with modern culture, offering black-and-white conclusions when people wanted to explore the possibility that humans might not know it all.

Unlike most churches, the emerging church is not tied to any one denomination and includes members of various faiths who want to rethink how church is done. A hallmark of an emerging church is the influence of poststructuralist theory on Biblical interpretation. Following in the footsteps of postmodern theorists like French philosopher Jacques Derrida, emerging theologians have begun reinterpreting or reframing the Bible to account for the way Western cultural assumptions have colored readings of scriptural texts. Many in the emerging community find it distorting, for example, to reduce the Bible to a formula for salvation or to a set of dogmas. The emerging church sees biblical truth as the unfolding of a narrative, and it embraces the internet to help people gather and participate in dialogue across faith traditions.

"It goes back to story," Hartman says. "A lot of the emerging church has grown out of a new emphasis on narrative theology, the story of God and God's people. How does this story connect to God's plan for the people of Baltimore? There is no formula."

The emerging church wants to peel away doctrine to find the authentic Jesus, Hartman says, to strip Christianity down to the core of what Jesus was about. Though members of the emerging church may agree that acceptance of Jesus Christ is the key to getting to heaven, they also believe that the Bible and Jesus left instructions for how believers were supposed to live in this world.

To some, emerging-church theory is the devil in disguise, undermining two millennia of church history with postmodern moral relativism. But to its adherents, it may be saving Christianity from irrelevance.

For many around the Kiss Café table, the emerging movement (or "conversation," as it's called) is a faith network that allows people to be whom they are--artists, graduate students, intellectuals, progressives, flawed seekers--and still be Christians, too.

Nikki Rhodes, 26, of Charles Village, who with her husband, Jason, attended the cohort for the first time on March 25, says she used to live in fear that she wasn't representing Christ the right way. Now, she no longer feels guilty talking about the Gospel differently than other people--or for not having all the answers. "There's a lot of freedom, and it's OK not to know," she says of the emerging-church philosophy. "I'm being who I am. We humans are shape shifters."

"I think that the typical church environment is a little too scared of confusion," Jason Rhodes says. "You have to watch what you say." He and Nikki currently belong to the Light Church, a small congregation in Mount Vernon that reaches out to artists at the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art.

Emergers don't want to be limited by divisive theology, says Tracy Gill of Canton, who holds a monthly salon in her home that welcomes people of all faiths. Instead, the focus is on serving the community and building relationships.

Criticisms of the emerging-church movement, though, say the church may be too quick to jettison traditional church theory and wisdom. Zane Scott, for instance, a former staff member with the United Methodist Church, says he is part of the emerging-church conversation because he thinks traditional denominations need to adapt if they want to survive. However, he says, the conversation is sometimes too focused on what it means to be "emerging" rather than on what it means to follow Jesus. Other critics, such as D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., fear that the emerging church's willingness to question core doctrine threatens to lead it into apostasy.

But according to Hartman and his wife, Saranell, both of whom are ordained Presbyterian ministers, the main tenet of emerging churches is that one can live according to the teachings of Jesus even before learning church theology. "The shorthand is, you can belong before you believe," Tim Hartman says.

The faith community started by the Hartmans--they are careful not to call it a "church"--is called Next Generation, and it's based in the Canton/Patterson Park area. The Hartmans were both living in Los Angeles when they answered an ad for the Presbytery of Baltimore, a midlevel governing body for 72 churches in Maryland, seeking pastors willing to get creative to reach the elusive 25- to 35-year-old demographic in Harford County. The couple arrived to take on that task in 2004, but soon realized the group they sought was concentrated in Baltimore, not Harford County; in January of this year they moved to the city.

They have been given wide latitude by the Presbyterian Church to build a faith community in this area. The Presbyterian Church is worried about declining membership and hopes the Hartmans' congregation eventually becomes Presbyterian.

Like many emerging congregations, Next Generation is small, numbering about 20 participants in a given month, mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings. Next Generation sometimes gathers in the Hartmans' home, but more often than not, it meets in various locations around the city. The group doesn't have a church building, so twice a month it meets at the Chesapeake Wine Co. in Canton for what Hartman calls "theology on tap."

The Hartmans reject the idea of an insular church that only takes care of its own members, hanging out a sign and waiting for people to join up. Rather, they like to see a church that is out in the community, so Next Generation's participants help with Habitat for Humanity in Sandtown, serve meals at the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, and work at the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street. In the jargon of emerging churches, this outward orientation is called "missional." But Next Generation does not have an underlying agenda on its missions--no having a beer and pushing someone to convert. Instead, Hartman says, the emphasis is on being with people and serving them.

"It's not that the church has a mission," Tim Hartman says. "It is a mission."

In many ways, Next Generation's approach looks similar to that of Epic Church, located about four blocks away from Kiss Café and ministered by Chris Lockemy. Lockemy, 26, wanders into the March 25 cohort meeting late; with his platinum-blond highlighted fauxhawk, he's not what you picture when you think of an ordained minister, but he is indeed a minister for the Church of God, a denomination that, like the Presbyterian Church, is trying to attract a younger demographic. He says he used to be a conservative minister for the church, but these days he does a lot of his work by visiting local bars and clubs.

"Compared to my background, that's outside the box," says Lockemy, who used to be a youth pastor in a traditional congregation. "But for forward thinkers it's not very crazy."

Unlike Next Generation, Epic holds regular Sunday morning church services; and Lockemy, who had never met the Hartmans before this March meeting, doesn't know much about emerging-church theory. He had come to the meeting to learn, and like the emerging churches, he says, he is interested in doing away with "fluff" and agendas that can divert a church from its core mission. But he is hesitant to label his church as an emerging one. "I'm more on the line of just doing, not defining," he says.

That sentiment, though, speaks to the essence of what the emerging-church movement is about. As Hartman notes, many people attending emerging churches are not looking for pat answers to their questions about faith. He says they are "asking questions churches don't have answers for." Perhaps they have felt uncomfortable with church or do not feel solace in the rhythms of traditional church liturgy. A church that claims to have all the answers, Hartman says, is the last thing the people Next Generation attracts are seeking.

"They live in this postmodern world," he says, in which they may consider "truth" to be relative. "People say they believe in absolute truth, but only for themselves. They don't defer to traditional authorities."

So instead, he says, they're looking for dialogue and deconstruction of the traditional church theories.

"The biggest assumption [among postmoderns] is that their stories matter," Tim Hartman says. "They're looking for a place where their personal story can intersect God."

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