The New Christians: An Interview with Emergent Leader Tony Jones
BY Candace Chellew-Hodge
(This article originally appeared in Whosoever Magazine’s May/June
2008 issue available here: http://www.whosoever.org/v12i6/)
Jesus didn’t have a statement of faith – and neither does the emergent
“Emergent aims to facilitate a conversation among persons committed to
living out faithfully the call to participate in the reconciling
mission of the biblical God. Whether it appears in the by-laws of a
congregation or in the catalog of an educational institution, a
‘statement of faith’ tends to stop conversation,” writes Tony Jones in
his new book The New Christians.
Jones (at the time of this writing) is the national coordinator of
Emergent Village in Minnesota (he is now theologian-in-residence at
Solomon’s Porch in Minnesota) and one of the leaders in the emergent
church movement. He admits it’s hard to describe emergent and pin down
exactly what emergents believe, and that really is the point of
“Like the electronica music of the 1980s and 1990s, the emergent
church is a mash-up of old and new, of theory and practice, of men and
women, and of mainline, evangelical, and, increasingly Roman Catholic
Christians,” he writes.
Emergents embrace the idea that theology is an organic, living thing –
not something that can be set in stone in doctrines and dogmas. They
believe they serve God best when they are in relationship with others
and in conversation with others about theological matters that
denominations and educational institutions believe were decided
decades and centuries ago.
Because of this “mash-up” of old and new, and their penchant for
continuing theological dialogue over theological issues like the
theory of atonement and others, the emergent movement is decidedly at
odds with denominationalism that dominates the mainline church.
“Bureaucracy is bad for the gospel,” Jones told Whosoever in a recent
interview. “It made a lot of sense in the 19th and 20th centuries
after the Industrial Revolution with the arise of big – big
nation-state governments, big universities, big multi-national
corporations, big NGOs and non-profits. The church understandably
wanted to play on that ballfield so they said, ‘Let’s gather up all of
our posse and plant a big headquarters in Chicago or Louisville. Let’s
have a big office building. We’ll have a bunch of bureaucrats in
cubicles. We’ll call them mid level judicatories or bishops or
district superintendents.’ It was a move that was in no way
theological, but purely cultural. Now culture has changed.”
And those big bureaucracies that churches have built are not nimble
enough to change with the culture. While other businesses and
non-profits have reinvented themselves to succeed in a global market
where small and flexible is becoming the rule, churches lumber along,
burdened by its hierarchy and reams of rules and regulations.
This is what lies at the heart of the church’s inability to deal with
gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons within its midst. The
rules and regulations, the doctrines and the dogmas have become so
cumbersome – the bureaucracy so thick – that the true needs of the
people cannot be addressed in a timely fashion.
So, can GLBT people find a home in emergent? As will all things
emergent, the answer is, “That depends.”
“If you’re willing to sit at a table with people who don’t even let
women be elders or preach in their churches,” Jones said. “If your
ideology is more important than your commitment to conversation you
probably will feel uncomfortable in emergent. We’ve worked very hard
to make it a place that’s safe for people all across the spectrum. I
answer the same way to a conservative fundamentalist pastor: ‘If
you’re not capable of having a respectful theological conversation
with a lesbian then no, you shouldn’t come to emergent.'”
Some GLBT people may take offense at such a statement, and over at
Whosoever’s Godcast page, a discussion has taken place about how
someone from our community would be welcomed in emergent. To some, it
sounds as if Jones is asking us to go back into the closet to be part
of emergent, but I don’t hear it that way.
To me, it sounds as though emergent is fertile ground for GLBT people
to begin to till. It is a place where people are dedicated to
relationship and reconciliation. We cannot advance as GLBT people in
the church without both of those. While many emergent churches may, at
their core, be conservative, even fundamentalist, in their theological
beliefs, if they are willing to be in relationship with GLBT people
who appear in their midst, then this may be the best place to find new
Certainly, we cannot go in with guns blazing – demanding acceptance
and affirmation up front. We have to enter emergent with our ideology
safely tucked in our back pockets – ready to form true relationships
and seek true reconciliation with those we find in emergent
gatherings. Conservative and fundamentalist mainline churches are
dedicated to conserving their doctrines and dogmas and have little
interest in relationship, let alone reconciliation, with GLBT people.
Emergent is a whole different arena where minds are more open, hearts
are more welcoming.
In the final chapter of his book, Jones profiles churches that are
dealing with the issue of GLBT acceptance in the church.
“At the Church of the Apostles a church affiliated with both the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, a
young married couple from conservative Bible college sit next to gay
man. They have agreed to hold in abeyance their own particular
theological understandings of homosexuality and the church and live
together in this community and work it out in community,” Jones said.
James, the gay man in question told Jones: “It was really important
for me to find a place where I didn’t necessarily have to be accepted
for being gay – whatever gay means and how they look at me – but at
least to be part of the discussion and still feel welcome to be a part
and not looked down on. […] I have the most amazing friendships here,
and that’s what keeps me.”
That is the heart of the emergent movement as I understand it – those
friendships, those relationships that lead to reconciliation. Don’t
expect the emergent church to ever say that they are pro- or anti-gay.
Such definitive statements are not part of the emergent ethos.
Instead, expect to be welcomed as you are, but to have your ideas and
your beliefs challenged. In that challenge comes growth – not just for
yourself, but for the church as a whole. If we stop engaging one
another theologically and stop engaging God, then our faith will
surely die. The emergent movement is offering new life – not just to
GLBT people – but to a withering church.
As Jones said, Emergent Christians are trying to find places where God
is active in the world and get on board. We are welcome on the
You can hear Candace’s interview with Tony here:
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and
founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians.
Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay
and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at
http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as associate
pastor at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C.
She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal
Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for two decades in journalism and
public relations. She can be reached by email at