The Church at Auvers Sur Oise and the Death of the Emergent Church

After reading in Christianity Today about the resignation of Mars Hill’s Mark Driscoll, I have been contemplating the emergent movement. Ten years ago, the emergent movement seemed to be a breath of fresh air from a lifetime of southern fundamentalism.

I grew up in church, and by the time I reach adulthood, was quite bored with it. In high school, I wrote a dramatic monologue called, The Church Kid. In the opening lines, the character snarls, “Don’t preach at me. You’re not saying anything new anyway. Don’t quote Scripture at me. I can quote it back faster. Don’t debate me. I can counter every argument you’ve got. I am your next generation. I am…the church kid.”

The emergent movement, from whom Mark Driscoll rose as a central figure, represented a new way of thinking for me. From this philosophy, Christianity, and the big machine that it was, had become a dead entity. They wanted to redefine it, and not call themselves Christians, but “followers of Christ.” As such, they abandoned institutionalized Christianity, and returned to the original teachings of Christ to create a living, breathing, culturally relevant lifestyle.

Out of this, came writers like Donald Miller, who wrote books comprised of funny, yet profound essays that questioned everything I had been taught to believe. Yet, he always wound around to conclusions that still felt “Christian,” enough for me to accept. Relevant Magazine became like a church. In every issue, I read articles written for and by trendy and educated twenty-something Christians, who weren’t necessarily republican fundamentalists.

According to Relevant, Christians could drink, curse (on rare occasions even from the pulpit), vote democrat, believe in evolution, question and redefine (but not completely violate) the doctrine of abstinence, and find the gospel in everything from R rated movies to Napoleon Dynamite and The Simpsons. They used phrases like, “spiritual journey,” or “finding meaning,” and spotlighted churches that were doing non-traditional things like meeting in art galleries and theatres and using art musicians to write their worship music.

The new face of Christianity, according to Relevant, were trendy, upwardly mobile hipsters on the outside, but on the inside, Kerouac-inspired monks looking for truth. Relevant also had a book division, and I bought about half of their entire catalog and dreamed of the day my magnum opus would appear with the Relevant logo on the spine.

After about a year of attending the church of Relevant Magazine, I finally found a church that seemed to fit the emergent (or at least the Relevant) model. They had abstract art in the lobby, turned off all the lights in the sanctuary, and lit the room with colored stage lights and the pensive glow of artfully displayed prayer candles. The worship team was all under thirty, and while their music generally centered around a safe diet of pop worship favorites from Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and Jesus Culture, each week they edged up an old hymn and occasionally used a rock cellist. They also had a recording studio, and from time to time, the worship team would play some of their originals.

They all dressed in Urban Outfitters, and did things like sport ironic facial hair or pair a knee-length taffeta dress with combat boots. The pastor was no different– although his Converse All Stars did belie the ever-increasing salt in his spiky blond hair. He was well-educated, and his verbose and slightly sarcastic style instantly appealed to the cynical writer in me. The first time I went, they were doing a series on Donald Miller’s most famous book, Blue Like Jazz. I had found my people.

As life would have it, I ended up moving away from this church. I somehow got caught up in an another movement. The Prayer Movement. The Prayer Movement was also made up of primarily trendy twenty-somethings, who ate organic and all looked like they got dressed every morning in a Forever 21. But these young people had an earnest desire to learn the art of prayer and understand how to use prayer and worship to change nations and impact history.

They had a national network of “houses of prayer,” which originally sounded like a euphemism for church. But as I found out, was totally different. They usually worked with a local church to create a “prayer room,” which had open mic prayer and live worship music going on a regular daytime schedule. Sometimes they would rent a communal house and host public prayer meetings in the basement. The staffers were primarily young adults.  Although some worked at Starbucks or sold things online, and the worship musicians all sold their CD’s for extra money, mainly they all lived on ministry donations (inspiring my post  on Money and Ministry).

A lifestyle of holiness was imperative, and fasting was an art form. At one’s own discretion and prompting, pop culture was avoided in favor of worship music, televisions were given away, and movies rarely consumed. Total abstinence was an absolute given, and compromise of that variety led to guilt-ridden resignations. After a few years of total immersion in the prayer movement, I kindly declined and bid it adieu. I then tried to return to my emergent beliefs. But I found it had changed.

My old church, while still dark and trendy, had gotten rid of the candles, and the abstract art was getting old. The revolving door of finding ever young musicians to fit “the image” seemed hollow and created a bit of a disconnect with the congregation. The pastor appeared to be taking things more seriously and did a series on fasting and another on holiness. It became clear, that once the hype wore off, the church was never “emergent,” if that had even been a denomination, but was just plain old Methodist with a fog machine.

Relevant had grown up too. The book division had died, as had the print magazine. The online magazine, while still maintaining a slightly snobby air, had lost a lot its edge and veered to the right more often than not. I haven’t seen anything from Donald Miller in several years. So, when I read about Mark Driscoll’s “mutually agreed upon,” resignation, it seemed fitting. The emergent movement, whatever it had been, had died.

While its core adherents seem to have drifted to more or less traditional Christianity, I wonder what has happened to the rest of its members. I read a statistic that 60% of America’s church kids have left the church by their twenties.

Van Gogh did a painting called The Church at Auvers Sur Oise. In it, he is a tiny figure, while a large church rises behind him. The church is all barred windows, and there is no door. A storm brews overhead, and Vincent shrinks into his coat. There is no shelter for him. The church, for Vincent Van Gogh, was closed.

While I think the American church is fairly welcoming to outsiders, I wonder if the death of the emergent church closes out an entire demographic. It functioned as a sort of collecting bin, a safe haven for those on their way in, or on their way out, of the church. Did its death make Christianity irrelevant for an entire generation—a generation it desperately needs? Locked in a culture war, the future of American Christianity is uncertain. Logistics surrounding the implementation of political measures such as the Affordable Care Act, and the defeat of DOMA, bring religious issues to battle with the “live and let live,” and “your rights end where mine began,” American credo.

As such, dissenting murmurs have begun to gather to argue against the freedom of religion of at all. Young adults are increasingly wary of religion, and if they ponder such as issues at all, they may consider themselves, “more spiritual than religious,” borrowing from many belief systems. What will happen to this demographic in a decade? Did the dissolution of emergent Christianity, purify Christianity, or make it obsolete? Have we, like Van Gogh’s church people, barred ourselves in from a culture who doesn’t even know they need us? And, most of all, have we completely lost our most valuable asset—our church kids?


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