Sustaining Emergent

A post by Sarcastic Lutheran got me thinking about worshiping communities, mission, and financial sustainability.  She writes about traveling to Detroit at the invitation of the Bishop’s Office to explore the possibility of a planting a postmodern, emergent ministry in an arts community adjacent to Wayne State University.  This pocket of artsy folks is otherwise surrounded by an economically-devastated neighborhood that has more abandoned homes than residents.  (Ryan Torma of Minneapolis’ Spirit Garage was also on the trip, and blogs about it here.)

I immediately asked myself several questions, wondering how relevant a church in the (overwhelmingly white, middle-class) postmodern, emergent paradigm would be in the midst of an impoverished African-American zip code.  But I also wondered about how such a ministry would sustain itself.  In my limited engagement with the emergent movement (a few books, a few seminars, a few discussions with emergent-types, and a visit to an "emergent" church – about which I’ve blogged under the tag "emergent") I have found little discussion of stewardship or financial sustainability.  Most postmodern/emergent ministries of which I’m aware survive by significant financial support from denominations or patrons, not the offerings or tithes of its members.  This fact concerns me, and begs me to ask if a model of congregational ministry is flawed if it cannot sustain itself?

Financial sustainability is a bigger issue than just emergent.  I think of the many urban congregations in poor neighborhoods that receive very little money in weekly offerings from its members.  Many of these churches end up closing their doors permanently, unable to maintain aging church buildings or pay for a pastor and other church staff.  Does this mean that ministry in low-income neighborhoods is inherently a flawed model?  Should the Church only minister in middle- and upper-class areas?  Of course not. In these situations the broader church needs to support ministry where congregations cannot be self-sustaining.  (That we fail to do so is another issue for another day.)

To this end I commend the work of congregations that have the vision to initiate new worshipping communities and/or to give generously to low-income congregations.  The ELCA’s Mission Partner program, connecting low-income congregations with wealthier partners, has been a helpful – if far from perfect – way to address this problem.  Less common, congregations sometimes spawn new worshipping communitites in different locations, often with a different style or culture than the "parent" congregation.  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick, MD and Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax, VA are two such examples of the one-church-two-locations model.  Spirit Garage in Minneapolis, the much-publicized, innovative, postmodern Lutheran worshiping community is financially supported by the 3200-member Bethlehem Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis.  A month ago I blogged about a Vineyard Church that decided to begin a ministry 1000 miles away, sending a pastor and several church members to relocate to a new town to initiate a new ministry.  Each of these scenarios embodies a deep commitment to mission, and offer models that more congregations should consider.

Back to emergent, with two points.  First, is emergent inherently flawed if it cannot sustain itself?  Not necessarily, but I think it has to grow in this area.  Over a year ago I wrote a post critical of the adolescent attitude of some emergent-types in regards to "institutional" religion.  I wrote:

But is it possible that the emergent movement is in denial about the extent to which it depends on traditional main line or evangelical Christian institutions? Many leaders in the emergent movement attended seminaries built and supported by denominations. Some of them are pastors whose pensions and health benefits are provided by denominations. Some of them engage in ministries that are funded in part or entirely through denominations or congregations affiliated with denominations.

Perhaps this is fine, especially if emergent is still in a start-up phase. But if emergent’s rhetoric is going to continue along an anti-denominational trajectory, then it seems to me that the emergent movement should emerge from the shadows and financial support of traditional Christianity and get on its own two feet.

I checked the websites of two Lutheran emergent ministries and struggled to find information about giving or stewardship (what I did find on one of the sites was good, but it was hard to track down).  Information about their denominational affiliation was scant.  This dearth of information stood in contrast to the otherwise information-rich, engaging and excellent design of their websites.

Second, even though I have questions about emergent – from finances to theology to "style" – my biggest problem with emergent is not actually with emergent, but with the folks who promote emergent as if it were the cure for what ails the Main Line (in my experience, such promoters are not actually emergent leaders themselves, but rather are anxious pastors and church bureocrats in traditional ministries looking for the next best thing).  In my area alone about four major events discussing and advocating a post-modern/emergent approach to ministry have taken place in the past year or so.  This is not bad in and of itself – in fact, it has been very good, for these events have raised important questions.  But I fear that what results is a perception that by adding a few couches to your worship space or projecting a few funky videos from an apple iBook, your ministry will turn around.  P’shaw.

I know and believe that the emergent paradigm has a place in the church, and a graceful Word to proclaim in our society.  But I fear that emergent is being misunderstood, misapplied and misappropriated, and what will result is something like the half-hearted appropriation of evangelical-style worship of the past generation that created worship wars and mostly mediocre "contemporary" worship services in mid-sized churches searching for the next best thing.

More to say about this.  I’ve probably already pissed off enough people for one post.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Sustaining Emergent

  1. Several random thoughts after reading your post:
    I don’t think that the old model of the national church supporting missionaries to other countries was ever questioned. I don’t think that mission emphasis should change, in a financial sense, if the new mission is in the city. Granted, support of overseas missions has waned; but so has any promotion of these activities in our denomination.
    Teaching about stewardship of resources is a difficult and alway-on-going task. But it is Biblical. In the poorer churches, the model is the widow and her mite. In the richer churches, Jesus’ command to give away everything, well, is it preached????? Or does that turn people away?
    The bottom line is that the resources are there to do whatever most established churches want to do. The question then becomes do they want to do mission (however you want to define that) or do they want to pad their own pews.
    I did the math for our Christmas offering: It was about $24/person. How does this compare to other churches?

  2. What I really like about the Poston article is its discussion of discipleship and mission. Churches have to be about something, they have to have a purpose, a focus, a drive, a mission. Most of our churches don’t have this. (In fact, in a previous job I used to visit alot of churches, and I’d often ask the pastor or lay staff member what their sense of mission was, what God was calling them to do in that place – and all too often they were not very clear or confident in their answer.)
    In this post I was trying to give a critical look at the sustainability of the “emergent” model of church. Perhaps it is just too early in the Lutheran Church’s experience with Emergent to make a determination of its financial viability, if even asking such a question is fair (I think it is). Most Lutheran expressions of the emergent paradigm are either new church plants or redevelopment churches with significant synodical and external support, or are outreach ministries of large, traditional congregations. So far as I know, there are not any self-sufficient, free-standing “emergent” Lutheran congregations. And I wonder if there ever will be . . .

  3. I thought what was interesting about Tim’s approach was he took an existing church which was still operating in the white middle-class postmodern paradigm in the midst of an impoverished African-American zip code and restructured the liturgy and the worship experience so it reflected the cultural context of the community. Not to mention getting serious about stewrdship by implementing a discipleship model which requires church leaders to tithe if they want to remain members of church council, etc. As a result, the average annual giving per confirmed, communing member is $1093 which is better than most wealthy suburban congregations. And this is in a zip code where the average household income is approx. $20K per year. On a percentage basis, their giving is 5.5% of household income. For comparison, I recently visited a wealthy suburban congregation with a $2M endowment where the average household icome is approx. $60K but the annual giving per CCM is only $862, or 1.4% of household income.
    Congregations tend to rise to the expectations of and to the examples set by their leaders. Low expectations yield poor results. And how can a church leader request that members tithe if he or she is not tithing?

  4. Some of the discipleship ideas in the Poston article are similar to the points set forward in the book Power Surge by Michael W. Foss, about Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, a very large, suburban church on the south end of Minneapolis. Perhaps the need for a discipleship model in ANY church is what is key, not that a dying church needs to be revitalized.
    As LZ says, what is the mission or sense of mission of a church? If there is none, then I guess the pastor is preaching to those who decided to pew-sit on Sundays and nothing else. At the very least, the church needs to fulfil the committment it makes to each baby baptized there. Our pastor says, “You all have made promises today. See that you keep them.”

  5. “like the half-hearted appropriation of evangelical-style worship of the past generation that created worship wars and mostly mediocre “contemporary” worship services in mid-sized churches searching for the next best thing.

    oh i’ve seen that….i hope that doesn’t continue.

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