When Jossey-Bass published Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian in 2001, the term "emerging church" was largely unknown, while the much-used "postmodern" was becoming passé. But today, both terms—and the online shorthand term "pomos" for postmoderns—are freely used to describe a segment of Christianity that is influencing the church, the culture and the publishing industry. That influence is widely attributed to McLaren's book, which also helped propel him to the forefront of the movement.
"As the world changes into some as yet undefined new reality, some liberals and conservatives are finding a desire to be in conversation with each other about the path ahead," said McLaren, a suburban Washington, D.C., pastor who calls the emerging church a "conversation" rather than a movement. "They're asking questions about what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern, postcolonial world."
All that questioning forced a rethinking of what the church is, how it needs to change and how it can better relate to a secular society. That in turn resulted in such an influx of new books that in 2003 the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association added an "Emerging Church" subcategory to its Church and Ministry category, defining the content as "addressing the complex issues of our world's ongoing cultural shifts and the impact this will have on the local church and its ministries." That description also could easily apply to recent evangelical books outside the Emerging Church category, such as two last year from InterVarsity Press: James Emery White's Serious Times, focused on living amid conflicting worldviews and postmodern "turbulence," and The Truth about Tolerance by Brad Stetson and Joseph G. Conti, about engaging in civic debate without compromising the truth.
As the Emerging Church name implies, the movement is one that has not fully arrived. Those taking part in the movement wouldn't have it any other way. A resistance to anything final and formulaic sets pomos apart from the modernist's emphasis on science, reason and propositional truth. Pomos see faith as a journey that integrates core values such as community, relevance, relationship, transformation, mission, story and interaction with a post-Christian culture.
A sampling of other 2004 titles provides a clue to what pomos want: The Hollywood Project: A Look into the Minds of the Makers of Spiritually Relevant Films by Alex Field and The Journey Towards Relevance by Kary Oberbrunner, both from Relevant Books; Future Church: Ministry in a Post-Seeker Age by Jim L. Wilson (Broadman & Holman); and Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller (Thomas Nelson). Dan Allender's forthcoming To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future (Waterbrook, March), is expected to appeal to the postmodernist love of "story" by encouraging readers to reflect on the story of their lives.
Miller's book in particular underscores a striking characteristic of pomo publishing: an unusually strong emphasis on backlist. In fact, at the June CBA convention, the title most frequently mentioned in emerging church circles was not Miller's '04 release but his '03 book, Blue Like Jazz (Nelson).
Bumping Up the Backlist
Partly because of the amorphous nature of the emerging church movement—unlike a denomination with a clearly defined and easily reached demographic—titles in the subcategory tend to stay in print and continue to sell long after their initial release dates. An example is McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. "Sales have doubled every year, which is not the backlist pattern we normally see," said Sheryl Fullerton, executive editor of the Jossey-Bass religion line. "In that book, Brian crystallized a lot of the questions people had. It became one of the seminal texts of the movement, and I think that's why it's continuing to do really well."
The longevity of pomo titles can also be attributed to steady sales resulting from word-of-mouth marketing. "The emerging church is a community. They're bloggers, they have independent Web sites, and there's all this conversation going on," Fullerton told PW. "Over time, our best channel has been Amazon, because it's a viral Internet community and a natural place for them to shop. On Amazon, you see the Listmania people. Brian's book is on nearly every one of their lists."
That kind of viral networking keeps books by some of the movement's most popular authors—Leonard Sweet, Robert E. Webber, Dan Kimball, Stan Grenz, John Franke, Spencer Burke, Mike Yaconelli—in print for years, including some titles that released in the mid 1990s. But that also means those books are selling online rather than in physical stores that lack the shelf space for backlist titles. "They go online, order stuff from Amazon and then come to me to talk about it," said Byron Borger, co-owner of the independent religion-specialty Hearts and Minds bookstore in Dallastown, Pa., about 30 miles south of Harrisburg.
That may not seem to do much for Borger's bottom line, but it does indicate that those in the postmodern demographic are finding their way to his store. And once there, they're likely to become engaged in the kind of conversation that pomos love—an open exchange of ideas and opinions that is often lacking in a typical Christian bookstore or large chain store. "Since we don't necessarily call ourselves a Christian bookstore, we attract a wider clientele," Borger said.
Through personal interaction and a Web site, Borger points customers to the authors he considers the important voices of the emerging church, such as McLaren and Sweet, as well as to titles that are critical of the movement, including Crossway's October release, Reclaiming the Center, edited by Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjos Helseth and Justin Taylor. Another critique of the movement, D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with Emergent (Zondervan), comes out in April 2005.
Though he's concerned—as are others within and without the movement—that the trappings of postmodernism could dilute the substance of its theology, Borger believes there is much to commend: the movement's rejection of an "unsustainable pietism," the effort to offer a new vision of evangelicalism and the emphasis on the arts, community, and outreach to those disillusioned with the traditional expression of conservative faith. "I like the idea—praise be to God—that they are trying to do this without throwing out the standard doctrines of historic orthodox Christianity," he said. In fact, among his current favorites is McLaren's August 2004 book for Zondervan, A Generous Orthodoxy—the fastest-selling title in the company's emergentYS imprint (see below), according to John Raymond, associate publisher for church resources and lifelong learning at Zondervan.
Farther north, the city of Toronto is home to a multiethnic, multifaith demographic—and what is believed to be the largest religious bookstore in the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Book Centre in the heart of downtown is also among the biggest single-store sellers of Brian McLaren's books.
"There's probably still a dominance of Christians in Toronto, but they're not the most active or vocal group," said general manager Dan Benson. "It's an incredibly multicultural city, so how do you live next door to Muslims and Jews and Hindus, with the history and baggage that we have as Christians, to those things we feel entitled to so often? It's like, 'What do you mean we can't put up Christmas trees?' Those are the controversies that are shaking the church, living in a post-Christian era and dealing with things like homosexuality and not dismissing it. That's my sense of where the postmodern thinking is."
Even though Benson's is clearly a Christian bookstore, like Borger he hesitates to emphasize the word "Christian" due to its strong association with conservative evangelicals who are often seen as "intolerant, inflexible, biblical literalists—and not all of them are," he said. "A lot of people who fit into the postmodern category don't want to be identified as Christian."
But those people are often referred to the Anglican Book Centre by friends and are surprised at the kinds of books carried in the store, which stocks 30,000 titles. "We've given [McLaren's books] a fair amount of push, because it's the kind of thing people are engaging in. Quite often they're looking for spiritual nourishment. They've not been brought up in the context of church or a religious tradition because of increasing secularism, and they're looking for something, but they don't know what to look for. We let them know we're not looking to convert them."
Genesis of a Movement
Though the emerging church movement is devoid of a single organization that drives its mission, in the 1990s several existing groups and companies began to converge after recognizing their shared vision for ministry in a postmodern world: Youth Specialties and Zondervan, which had already enjoyed a 30-year partnership—with Zondervan publishing a line of ministry resources for youth workers for the organization—and the Young Leaders Network, affiliated with Leadership Network. "The Young Leaders Network started doing some exploration in this area [of postmodernism]," said Youth Specialties president Mark Ostreicher. "About that same time, some friends of mine started using the phrase 'emerging church' and formed a group called Emergent. We formed a partnership with them on day two of their existence, which is why our imprint is called emergentYS."
Not surprisingly, emergentYS has become the imprint most closely associated with the movement, with its author roster composed largely of members of the Emergent network—including Doug Pagitt, the leader of the Young Leaders Network at the time Emergent formed and the author of a 2004 book, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church.
The Emergent network, along with its Emergent Village Web site, ended up providing a much welcome home, and later an unexpected platform, for Brian McLaren.
"When I wrote The Church on the Other Side in 1995, I did not know one other person thinking about the issues of postmodernity," said McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md. "While I was writing it, I discovered there were a few other authors—Len Sweet, Brian Walsh, John Middleton, Nancey Murphy—who were grappling with these issues. The book was my attempt to send up a trial balloon and see if anybody else was noticing these shifts in the culture."
They were, and so was the publishing industry. Since the 2003 release of The Story We Find Ourselves In, his second book for Jossey-Bass, McLaren has become the center of postmodern attention. "I've been taken out to a lot of lunches," he said. "Those who have really liked my books are often acquisition editors. They've expressed in personal terms that the books have played an important part in their life, and they've extended some very kind invitations to write—far more than I can respond to."
E-mails from readers have also proven to be far more than he can respond to. In the past two years, McLaren has had to change his e-mail address three times. "I get flooded with a lot of heartbreaking mail, from pastors and other Christian leaders who say, 'I thought I was the only person who thought this way' or 'I just got fired.' It's very moving." Negative comments are most often made publicly, he said: "Just search my name on the Christianity Today Web site—it's all there."
That flood of reaction is likely to increase with the publication in March of McLaren's third book for Jossey-Bass, The Last Word and the Word after That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity. The final volume in what has become a trilogy featuring the fictional relationship between a questioning pastor and his postmodern mentor, the book includes an in-depth discussion about the conventional doctrine of hell, which results in the image of a deity that "suffers from borderline personality disorder or some worse sociopathic diagnosis," he writes in the introduction. But McLaren hopes the book, which deals with a wide range of theological issues, will encourage the emerging church to focus on peace, justice and mission.
Meanwhile, McLaren is at work on the first of three books for W Publishing Group. The Secret Message of Jesus, scheduled to release in the spring of 2006, will present Jesus' teachings on the kingdom of God in a way that is understandable to general audiences.
Third Century, Third Millennium
To many observers, one of the most surprising facets of postmodern faith is the integration of ancient practices and rituals into contemporary worship. Loyola Press senior editor Joe Durepos likes to quote author and former PW religion editor Phyllis Tickle on this trend: Postmoderns, she said, are "rushing headlong to the third century." Among the first authors to recognize and give voice to this aspect of the movement was Robert E. Webber, whose "ancient-future" series helped put Baker Books on the postmodern map.
The most recent title in the series, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (October 2004), emphasizes the value of following the liturgical calendar as a means of drawing closer to Christ. Previous titles have also tapped into the postmodern philosophy that "the road to the future runs through the past": Ancient-Future Faith (1999) and Ancient-Future Evangelism (2003). Future books will include Ancient-Future Spirituality and Ancient-Future Communion.While those titles may seem radical to a modernist evangelical audience, they form the essence of traditional Catholicism, which until recently was often rejected by younger Catholics. A surprising return to orthodoxy among young people was chronicled in Colleen Carroll's 2002 book for Loyola, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. In April, Loyola will publish Swimming with Scapulars by Matthew Lickona, a wine connoisseur, alternative rock fan, avid moviegoer, writer for an alternative newspaper and highly traditional Catholic—evidenced by his wearing of a scapular, an element of the monastic habit that dates to medieval times .
"Here's an Old World Catholic with a New World sensibility," said Durepos. "He's part of a movement that has bridged the past and the present. They're drawn to the rediscovery of mystery and metaphor, the restoration of myth and story. There's an aesthetic involved in their practice of faith; it's informed by things like incense, Latin, the cadences of the liturgy."
Perhaps the most telling evidence of a return to the past is a just-released book from Relevant Media Group, whose hip, 20-something demographic is the primary core of postmodern thinking. The Vision and the Vow by Peter Grieg features two "front" covers, one for the "vision" section and another for the "vow." The Vision is graphics-intensive with a graffiti-like, urban art feel. The Vow is a call to radical discipleship based on a vow taken by Count Zinzendorf, an 18th-century Moravian of Austrian nobility. (Another design-intensive title, Post-Rapture Radio: Lost Writings from a Failed Revolution by Russell Rathbun [Jossey-Bass, March], is "a wild postmodern layer upon layer of narrative technique, about the discovery of the papers of a failed revolution written on scraps and envelopes," said Jossey-Bass's Fullerton.
The Vision and the Vow"is one of the most your-neck-hair-will-stand-up type of books I've ever read," said Cameron Strang, Relevant CEO. "The style is designed aggressively to get your attention, but the vow will change your life. It's basic, a vow to be true to Christ, be kind to others and to take the gospel to nations. But it's a vow to be taken literally, a dedication that you're going to walk this thing out."
For those who still need convincing, Relevant's growth is a significant indicator of the market for postmodern books: The company's book sales quadrupled in 2004, largely due to an increased visibility in general interest bookstores. Annual revenue for 2003 was $600,000; the company closed out 2004 with $2.1 million in revenue.
"I attribute that to better books, better packaging, better marketing," as well as increased media attention, said Strang, who was featured in a segment of 60 Minutes in December. "We sell a lot online direct to consumer, but we had success in 2004 with mainstream retail, which has been the catalyst for the 300% growth. It's gratifying to see ABA open up to us, because we write to the ABA. We write to people who are in the real world but are looking for God and want to talk about their faith in the midst of that."
For Relevant, the "real world" is largely an urban one. "That's the world where our readers live," Strang said, and that reality prompted a company move late last year from the affluent Orlando suburb of Lake Mary to a site closer to the center of the city. "We want to be a part of our readers' world. We work here, we live here, we're in the traffic here and we're doing the things that characterize the culture that we represent."
And that includes changing—frequently and rapidly. In March, the fledgling company is celebrating the two-year anniversary of the launch of Relevant magazine with a complete redesign of the publication and the company Web site, and the repackaging and rerelease of its biggest-selling book, Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman.
Strang readily concedes that "it's not 'cool' to publish books. But there's such a need for them, and that's why we do them." Still, there's that postmodern sensibility to consider, so Relevant overcompensates by including a five-person design team among its staff of 20. "If we don't push ourselves to reinvigorate the creative [aspect] of our products, people will lose interest," Strang said of his readers. "So the moment we arrive is the moment we start over."
|Ford is the author of Memoir of a Misfit and a frequent PW contributor.|