A couple of days ago, I quoted from Chasing Francis, book Iâ€™ve just finished reading. It came highly recommended to me, but honestly I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. In the end, howeiver I was grateful to have read it. It encouraged my personal journey as well as helped me understand a bit more of the emergent conversation.
It is not truly a novel. It is the story of a fictitious pilgrimage by a disillusioned mega-church pastor who is forced into a leave of absence by a crisis of faith. He ends up in Italy with his uncle who is a Catholic priest who guides him on a process to rediscover his faith though the teachings, life and example of the person who became known as St. Francis of Assisi. Though the story does degenerate into preachiness at times, it is a creative way to tell the story of St. Francis in a way that readers today can engage. And St. Francisâ€™ story and impact on the church of his day is a great read.
I found the first three quarters of this book to be engaging and a great encouragement to my own journey as he discards his institutional objectives for a clearer understanding of Godâ€™s work in the world. But I found the last quarter to be as disappointing as the first part was encouraging. But that doesnâ€™t mean it wasnâ€™t worth reading. Even the ending was enlightening as an example of the Christianity I donâ€™t want to get caught in again. The uptake of the story is that the pastorâ€™s crisis of faith is resolved, not in a newfound relationship with God but a new set of five priorities derived from his time in Italy. In the end he and those he influences are more enamored with chasing Francis than they are following Jesus. I doubt even Francis would have approved.
But it did help me understand what has bothered me about what is becoming increasingly known as the emergent church or the emergent movement. The publicity of this book identifies it with this movement and Brian McClaren has a quote on the cover declaring this part of that conversation. I say that because the ending of this book solidifies some of what has concerned me most about this movement.
Iâ€™m often asked what I think of the emergent church movement and in answering Iâ€™ve reminded people that Iâ€™ve had very little firsthand touch with it. Thus my conclusions have come from reading some of its authors and what others have said so that my conclusions canâ€™t be construed as definitive. But I have said that I think the movement is asking better questions than many traditional congregations and in many cases has a better message that focuses on relationships with each other and a more relevant engagement with the world.
On the downside, however, they seem to be compressing that into the same institutional structures that will eventually subvert their message. They are still caught up in building, leadership and services. Also, Iâ€™ve not found that the ever-present Christ is an important part of the conversation. It is more a movement driven by principles and ideology that find identity in the movement and its leaders, rather than finding a deeper intimacy with the Father, Son and Spirit. Certainly God is referenced a lot, but it doesnâ€™t seem to me to be the language of a growing relationship with him, but an exploration of ideas and practices that might be more relevant.
This difference is not small. If our journey isnâ€™t leading us to a fuller engagement with Jesus and a more complete identity in him alone, then we just end up with another man-made movement that results from our efforts rather than his working. I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s where the emergent conversation is going, but if this book is any indication, building institutions off a new set of priorities isnâ€™t going to get it done.
Will we ever learn that Jesus didnâ€™t start anything like that nor encouraged his disciples to do so? He said he would build his church an framed that reality in the language of family, not the structures of a corporation. In the end, if the still-present and still-active Jesus is not at the center of the conversation and the goal of that conversation, weâ€™re still missing the best this kingdom has to offer,