As you may have guessed, I am not too sanguine on the Emergent project. However, they have attracted adherents, and this means something, if not necessarily something good. The principles of economics are valid in any system that permits choice. We may decry church-shopping, but since we must live with it, we should recognize that growing movements are supplying wants (though not always needs) of churchgoers.
It seems clear enough that American churchgoers are boutique consumers and that much of the "growth" in churches is the dreary zero-sum game of believers moving around to where they feel "fed." But perhaps I have used the sneer quotes too soon. Let me recount my own Emergent experience.
A friend of mine invited me to Sunday night church at his home megachurch. This Sunday night service was held in one of the outbuildings known as "The Warehouse." It was the Advent season last year, and I enjoyed singing several Christmas hymns during the worship. The words were projected onto a screen and superimposed over medieval and Renaissance pictures of the Madonna and Child. All of this was very good.
I should have felt very much at home, but before the music started, we were exhorted to feel free to wander around to the different "worship stations" (I think this is the right term) around the room. There, one could worship by painting, writing in a journal, or sculpting with clay. Thus, many were milling about during the music doing ever-so-artistic things while the rest of us tried to sing.
I don't remember any of the sermon, but, to be fair, I don't remember any sermons from a year ago. The pastor, a young guy like the rest of the congregation, preached from a stool, wore an untucked dress shirt, and had an earring on conspicuous display. He was cool, albeit in an I'm-the-cool-guy-at-seminary kind of way. I don't remember any stunning heresy, but I was left with the impression that this was meant to be bleeding-edge, really, really genuine stuff. It was a little annoying, but seemed to be just another comic oddity, like CCM trying to out-cool the world.
After the service, I was introduced to several young ladies, all of whom were English majors. When I listened to them talk amongst themselves, I was reminded of the autospeak of Furbies:
blah blah blah Sandra Cisneros
Hunger of Memory blah blah blah
Derrida blah blah post-blah
To be fair, Calvinists exhibit this behavior too:
blah blah blah Bahnsen
Theonomy blah blah orthodox
blah heretic blah blah out of fellowship.
But I digress. I do see a genuine desire among these Emergents to worship God in a meaningful way. This desire is alloyed with the same dross of selfishness that has plagued the evangelical churches they are rebelling against. Both the twenty-something Emergents and the middle-aged evangelicals have pursued genuineness. But it is the genuineness of me getting what I genuinely want.
The "genuineness" of the last generation is that of spirituality without doctrine and, oh yeah, a rockin' band. The new "genuineness" is the same as the last, but with an additional desire for beauty. It's a step forward, but completely insufficient as a cure for what ails the church.
Without a submission to sound doctrine, and a true humility that cares as much for the blue-haired saints as for hipster doofuses, any revival project is doomed to failure. The pronoun "I" is used in the Psalms, but check out how often it refers either to personal study or worship "in the midst of the assembly." Do we really want to edify the whole body? Or will we look upon our brothers and sisters in Christ and pray, "I thank you Lord, that I am not as old/uncool as that fogey/geek/dweeb/spaz?" Can I submit a paraphrase? "What you do to the least of my nerds, you do to me."
The alternative is not pretty. The Balkanization of the Church can certainly continue. The technology of virtual reality may someday allow us individual chambers in which we get the exact worship and sermon we want. Perhaps they'll even have ear scratchers anatomically designed for each individual ear.