An Open Letter to the Emergent Church

Dear Emergents,

Congratulations on conducting perhaps the most successful marketing campaign the American church has ever seen. Maybe it’s not the most original tactic, this  repackaging of the same old structural inequalities, but it clearly works for you. You decry the megachurches, the prosperity gospel, the Republican takeover of Christian doctrine and offer followers a smaller, humbler alternative.

But for all your talk of community and shalom, I want to know: whose community is it? And is it really shalom if harmony depends on the dismissal of dissent? Because from my perspective, the community you offer isn’t structurally any different from the mainstream church and its myriad flaws. Your community remains fundamentally conservative. It remains dominated by straight white men. There are no prominent queer Emergents, no prominent women, no prominent people of color.

And here’s the remarkable bit: you still believe you’re different. You really believe you’ve got the concept of social justice nailed. You’ve graciously chosen to acknowledge the church’s failures on immigration, poverty, and sometimes even GLBT equality, and somehow, you seem to believe this is enough. You believe this is what shalom looks like. And gentlemen, I’m not at all sorry to inform you that is simply not the case.

It is not shalom to dismiss people of color when they tell you that you have been racially insensitive.

It is not shalom to dismiss your critics as ‘mean‘ when all they’ve done is offer a dissenting perspective.

It is not shalom to behave in a hypocritical manner, then have online meltdowns when that hypocrisy is satirized.

Let me ask you seriously: has it occurred to you even once to ask yourself, or someone else, why that satire exists? Have you wondered why so many people seem to appreciate that satire? Because there are two options here. Either those people are cartoon villains, or they have valid criticisms. And if those people have valid criticisms, do you think that maybe, just maybe, they’re resorted to satire because you have steadfastly refused to acknowledge them?

Maybe I’m crazy.  I’ve certainly heard that I’m mean.

But I spent over two decades of my life engulfed by the American church, it has educated me and abused me and on rare occasions it’s reminded me why it’s good to be alive. Even now, prodigal that I am, I know that I owe much of who I am to the church. She’s a whore and she is my mother, and I know her like I know myself. And I am telling you, Emergents, you’ve done her no favors. You say you’re radical?

You don’t understand the first thing about that word.

It’s radical to listen. It’s radical to react with humility when someone with experiences that aren’t yours corrects you about them. It’s radical to step back and allow suppressed voices to speak. It’s radical to admit when you’re wrong and it’s radical to put the interests of the world’s marginalized ahead of yourself, or even your best friends.

You, white men who lead the church, have had your milennia in the sun. And you’re threatened by a parody account on Twitter? I’d be amused if it weren’t all so depressingly banal. Your involvement in the Emergent movement doesn’t remove the social privilege you enjoy. From one white person to another: unpacking privilege is an ongoing process and being an anti-racist ally requires more from you than your good intentions. If you want an inclusive church, you will have to sacrifice your position of privilege. You will have to step back. Some of you might even have to step down. And that, Emergents, is what real reconciliation looks like. That’s shalom. That is how you build community.


A former sympathizer


3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Emergent Church

  1. Seeing that your letter is open I am happy to reply.

    1. It seems to me that you are annoyed by a handful of people yet you call all people who would describe themselves as emergent.

    2. You state – ‘There are no prominent queer Emergents, no prominent women, no prominent people of color.’
    I ask you why ‘prominent’ is so important in your decision to critique what is happening. Could it not be the case that some are just getting on with the work without letting you know about it.

    3. You say that emergents have done the church no favours and yet you highlight a willingness to grapple with key issues that the church usually ignores.

    If you are annoyed at a few white emergent men then dont write an open letter to all of us, just speak to them.

    I appreciate that you may well have a point in being disillusioned with the more vocal leaders and I support your right to offer a critique but these people are not the only story. There are many people making a positive difference to the church who don’t fit your open letter.

    Hope that helps

    Thanks Al

    • Hey Al, thanks for the reply. I’ll address you point by point, if that’s all right.

      1. My letter is addressed to the Emergent church as a body because I believe that body has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable when they perpetuate rather than check structural inequality. While I am certain that there are individual Emergents engaged in this work, there is little to no evidence that the movement as a whole is *more* engaged with addressing its own privilege, compared to the mainstream church.

      2. Prominence is incredibly relevant here. If the Emergent church is more egalitarian than its mainstream counterpart, it stands to reason that its public representation would be diverse. This is not the case, and in my opinion, that reveals deeper flaws within the movement. If, for example, Emergent women don’t have a public platform, how can I reasonably believe that they’re afforded equal respect to men in private? Again, the evidence just isn’t there.

      3. My point is that the Emergent church’s willingness to address these issues is superficial at best, and therefore not structurally distinct from the mainstream church. It’s not enough to advocate for social justice unless you’re also willing to listen to marginalized people.

      Finally, my advice to Emergents who don’t want to be categorized along with Tony Jones and his friends: hold them accountable. Publicly. Demand better conversations about race, gender and sexuality. Push for more egalitarian representation. You have the leaders you deserve.

  2. Hi Sarah

    Thanks for your reply

    First of all I think you are on to a very important point and I will definitely be giving it more thought.

    1. I agree with your premiss that we need to call leaders to account. I would suggest that you are not definite enough in your post for me to fully understand ( or know if I have understood correctly). Perhaps a few solid examples of what you have experienced would help.

    2. As a father of four daughters I am keenly interested in this one but would ask – Are there no emergent women with a platform (I can think of some that I read regularly). I wonder whether the problem is two-fold a) There are a few emergent leaders who still have closet sexism issues b) There are those that are looking to create a level playing field but are working in a culture that continually makes this difficult – result it looks as if they haven’t gone far enough. Either way I would agree that they need to do more.

    3. I would agree with you on this but would still maintain that to suggest that they have not done better than the more conservative church is somewhat discouraging.

    Finally I would ask, as a white ,privileged, male leader in an emergent church, how do I do better in addressing such issues.

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