Some of our Christian colleagues are having a bit of a blog & comment-fest around the future of the terms “emergent” and “emerging” to describe their work:
Kester Brewin at Signs of Emergence
Steve Knight at Emergent Village
Brian McLaren at God’s Politics
It’s hardly a new conversation for them, but rather goes back at least to 2005.
So what’s in a name? Brian McLaren and his conversation partners make some reference to political implications, especially vis-a-vis the 2008 elections, but there’s little exploration of the link between types of spiritual community-building and modes of political action. Kester Brewin’s conversation stays more or less at the meta-level (where he intended it to be, I think). Steve Knight’s discussion concerns language as a description of action; one commenter, Wayne, writes, “In the same way, as the number of churches deal with the change in approach, emergent will be redundant and it may just be ‘church".” What’s interesting about this (Christian) emergent discussion is how theological and ekklesia-focused it is; there is little attention paid to the organizational structure of these new groups, still less to how they actually spend their time (worship? social service? social change? evangelism? learning? personal growth?).
Over on our side of the fence, we’ve tended to be concerned with organizational structures. Thus, a group that rejects denominational structures and rabbinic authority is, hey presto, an “independent minyan.” But that hasn’t necessarily helped things. Some people like to use “independent minyan” or “indie minyan” as synecdoche, to refer to the phenomenon as a whole; it’s occurred all too often in some of the recent reporting on the S3K-Mechon Hadar Survey. The problem is that whatever else they may be, new communities such as Brooklyn Jews, IKAR, Jews in the Woods, Kavana, Kavod House, Kol Tzedek, Mitziut, Nashuva, Riverway, Saviv, Yavneh, etc., simply aren’t independent minyanim.
Most people aren’t interested in terms at all; they’re busy doing the work that they set out to do, and don’t have much interest in what it’s called, so long as it gets done. Certainly there are other metaphors one might use to describe these differences, but the initial point I want to make here is that for now, our conversations about distinctions among the “independent minyan” vs. the “rabbi-led emergent” vs. something else are letting internal organizational structure drive the discussion, or, if you will, letting ontology recapitulate phylogeny. Indeed, our survey data does show significant distinctions among “independent minyanim,” “rabbi-led emergent communities,” and “alternative emergent communities” (and yes, there’s some truth to the claim that the “alternative” category is a bit kitchen sink-like, but we do say our report is preliminary).
This initial point – the priority of organizational structure – leads to my second point: underlying these organizational differences, however, are significant similarities: commitments to community-based (rather than inner-directed) spiritual expression, deep hospitality, democratic worship, sustained confrontation with tradition, theologically-informed social change, blurring of the sacred/secular divide, and so on. Perhaps “emergent” is not the ideal term to capture these big ideas; “emerging” may be a slightly generic, though it doesn’t have the richness associated with “emergence.” Still, for now, “emergent” is serving an important purpose: to capture in a single word or phrase (“Jewish Emergent”), one not dependent on organizational structure, the broad swathe of new spiritual communities that have sprung up over the past decade or so.
And this leads to my final point, which is about where all of this is headed. I think the Christian Emergent debate about labels is more productive than what has (or, rather, hasn’t) transpired among Jewish Emergent leaders. Brian, Kester, Steve, and others are exploring the meaning of their work and looking for ways communicate that meaning not only to themselves but more broadly to the Church as a whole, in the ultimate hope that Christendom might reconsider the way it lives out its faith. In contrast, the “Jewish Emergent” conversation seems aimed less at effecting change within the broader institutional community than at coming up with new forms that at best ignore the mainstream. The broad conversations that do occur, often facilitated by mainstream institutions or by funders, mostly are framed as “us-vs.-them,” rather than as “we,” and there is relatively little visioning of how Jewish Emergent might shape klal Yisrael.
The question very few people seem to be asking (admittedly, emergent types just do rather than spend time asking questions) is whether these developments ultimately will result in reform or revolution in existing ecclesial institutions like churches and synagogues (as Wayne suggests above), or whether we ought to be looking at new ways of mapping the organized religious world. Some independent minyanim — Minyan Koleinu, Altshul, PicoEgal — already are finding physical homes in synagogues; whether that means they eventually will assimilate into one another remains to be seen. Some “synagogue-like” rabbi-led communities may move in non-synagogue directions. Speaking personally, I’ve been a member of IKAR all but since its founding: when we “grow up,” I don’t know that we’ll be a synagogue, or even that we want to. And the alternative communities are pushing the organizational envelope furthest of all.
Perhaps Emergent Village and Sojourners have more in common with each other than they do with churches, seminaries, and denominations. Among Jewish emergents, perhaps the independent minyan Kehilat Hadar has more in common with the yeshiva at Mechon Hadar than with the synagogue Anshe Chesed; perhaps the rabbi-led emergent community IKAR has more in common with the social justice group Progressive Jewish Alliance than with Temple Beth Am; perhaps the alternative community Kavod House has more in common with Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council than with Chabad House (denominational differences notwithstanding). And what that might mean for klal Yisrael — beyond the constraints of our existing institutions — is an exciting conversation just waiting to happen.