Is the Emergent Movement A Colononizing Influence?

by Randy Woodley

In regards to whether Emergent is just another colonization point for indigenous people: I would say this is a very important question. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I would say, no… For me, and from my limited viewpoint, I don’t believe this concern is one that I can say I have seen occurring.

In a general way, I see the emergent movements as a path for the dominant church to catch up to where indigenous people have been in our own praxis. In other words, in many ways, we have already been where they are going. If allowed in the conversation, I think we can serve as guides and we can speak prophetically into the same colonial “hampster wheel” they often get sidetracked on. This move requires a great deal of humility on both sides. The dominant cultural White church does not bend easily or take correction well. Sometimes, the mostly nice, intellectual, postmodern, love-in action-first, emergent folks even “kill the messenger.”

Our stance means we will not always be popular, even when at first they seem embracing. Unfortunately, my wife and I have been around long enough to see the Indigenous viewpoint become “flava of the month” more than once. I for one, am done playing church games with emergents or any one else in the dominant White church. As D.L. knows, I made a declaration of a problem with the worldview of some emergent folks whom I dearly love, about the lack of multi-racial composite in the leadership of a fellowship that we were a part of, and it cost me dearly by losing several good friends. I simply pointed out that after 10 years of ministering (in all the most noble of emergent ways) among poor Blacks and Latinos, the leadership (and almost all of the group itself) was still all White. The reaction I received was the same one that we have received from other White culturally dominant fellowships; one that we have experienced now for going on three decades when such topics are broached. It’s the one that says, the conversation is over! It doesn’t matter if they leave the table, or they ask you to excuse yourself from the table, or whether everyone just sits at the table in silence, the point is, the conversation is over.

Over the years, I have spoken personally very frankly on several occasions, with Brian McLaren about the diversity issue in the emergent movements (to which he fully agrees, and as a result, Brian has been very active in finding ways to get the indigenous voice in the conversation by creating opportunities for me, Twiss and others). Two of those opportunities have been the chapters we have written in the last two emergent compilations: “The Emergent Manifesto of Hope” and “The Justice Project.” If you read my chapters, they are a prophetic challenge to the emergent movements to learn by partnering with indigene. It is unfortunate that I have never been contacted by anyone who has read these in order to have a meaningful conversation, much less develop partnership and the real challenge, “friendship.”

McLaren has opened up several other opportunities for me including inviting me to blog on Jim Wallis and Friends blog space. If you read some of my posts there, you will find them to be challenging as well. McLaren also created the space for the initial conversation for me to get my current job. He knew my perspective would not be appreciated at 99% of seminaries and universities in the west and suggested George Fox could handle it. He was right-so far…As you can ask any of my students, I am very active in challenging western assumptions and in sharing indigenous perspectives.

My ultimate hope is that my limited involvement in these conversations will produce meaningful friendships and, somehow they eventually shift the conversations that will enable the kind of changes that Jesus wants to make in the church and in the world. Ultimately, our conversations and theologizing, etc. all come down to the simple truth of the Gospel being lived out on earth and to do that, we simply need to follow Jesus Christ.It usually gets more complicated after that…

Finally, this blog, “Ethnic Space and Faith” was developed to give indigenous people and others, a voice in all issues concerning ethnicity and faith, including the one we are having now. Any Emergents out there? Let’s keep talking.

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22 Responses to Is the Emergent Movement A Colononizing Influence?

  1. This has been and continues to be my experience with working with the dominant society as well, not only in Church related matters but in all aspects, education, justice, health, etc. There is simply an unfounded belief that their way is superior. Their beliefs are superior, their religion is Christian and their lives are Christian based. These are walls that I worked at trying to get them to install “gates” in to let others into, only to find the lip service is there but in the end the walls remain.

  2. Anne Wood says:

    Randy, I am passing this on.

  3. I see the Emergent conversation as an attempt to acknowledge and hopefully correct the imbalance in theological discourse throughout the twentieth century. It will take time to provide a more well-rounded perspective that embraces a truly global Christian vision, but Emergent is a starting point to rectify the historic White, Western bias that has been the loudest in this collective effort.

    I was a missionary in East Africa and that profoundly shaped my opinion that the African voice must be heard more clearly in theological discourse. I cannot speak as a minority, but I have spent years among minority voices and I feel strongly they have much for us all to receive and to learn from. I hope the global expression of Christian theology will emerge in the twenty-first century so that we can truly have a more balanced faith from which we can reach the entire world.

    Thank you for challenging us all to hear a variety of perspectives and not just settle with the historic bias. I’m sure it feels daunting. May God bless your work and refresh you to continue speaking truth.

  4. Nathan Smith says:


    Another excellent word. I really like how you contend with the obvious stuff that has a lot of us more quiet as we relent of the opportunities for political reasons. I wish someone would work on a theology of politics – of course not governmental but relational politics.

    Anyways, I would categorize my self as an emerging Christian for a lot of reasons but mostly because of the honest resonation that I experienced during my first read of “Generous Orthodoxy.” I asked an Old Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School what he thought about postmodernism and modernity, etc… His answer was quick and simple – to him, Modernity was the invasion, not Postmodernity. As I learned more and more about postmodernity, it honestly felt more Native American to me than anything else and reminded me of my experience growing up with First Nations families and friends and the way they thought. It seems that modernity and postmodernity are just fancy words describing a pull away from something and a return to something. That something, though undefined, seemed to me to always be a way of expressing reality in a similar ilk or vein as the Native community, though not completely.

    I know that Soong Chah has written that the Emergent conversation is predominantly white and there have been efforts to correct that as you have written. One prominent African American pastor, Crawford Lorritts, spoke negatively to this issue at the Gospel Coalition conference. I reviewed his comment and Soong Chan Rah’s book here –
    Basically, Dr. Lorritts made fun of Emergent people in a private conversation that D.A. Carson then shared with those in attendance. Dr. Carson reported that conversation by saying,

    “Of course there’s a sense in which from the point of view of the African American community, the Emerging Church movement is basically a movement of rich white kids who have their dad’s platinum cards and can thus pay for their journey along the road.”

    I would like to know at some point, if he is speaking for the entire African American community.

    I would comment in short that the Emergent movement is more open to their own discrepancies and mistakes, because that approach to knowledge (the fact that we can make mistakes) is inherent to the movement’s identity. If that stays the same, then I believe it can continue to be dynamic, if not, well…

    My concern is that because the Emergent movement is a reaction/response to an overly confident Modern Christianity, that it can’t be anything else but predominantly white. As I’ve spoken with African American students and friends as well people from other countries, most other cultures haven’t experienced modernity on the level that White westerners have (or at all) and therefore don’t need to return to anything, therefore they don’t need to “emerge.” After explaining the traits of the emerging movement to one African American woman at Trinity, (they weren’t aware of the movement at all), she remarked, “well if that’s the emerging church then we’ve always been the emerging church.”

    As you said, “…In other words, in many ways, we have already been where they are going…” is so true and as such, we need to return to a place of health and wholeness and humility alongside other cultures who didn’t experience the over-exposure to modernity that the western culture has experienced. It will take awhile but I couldn’t agree more – we need to be guided out of modernity (though it wasn’t all bad) back to a place of health. As my professor said, modernity was the invasion.

    Thanks for posting Randy!

  5. Randy, I read the Justice Project and was really shaken by your chapter asking us to come to the table with indigenous folks. The phrase has not left my mind since I read it and I’ve frequently wondered how I could do it. At the time, I wrote this to ask myself the questions that I had, but I haven’t been sure how to do anything with them.

    In any case, the other day some of us Atlanta Emergent folks were able to have dinner with folks from the Theological Conversation, and I was fortunate to talk with Richard Twiss a bit. He mentioned this site to me as one where you write, and I was deeply happy to be made aware of it.

    So I’d put myself here as one Emergent who would dearly love to have a meaningful conversation, and even develop partnership and look toward the real challenge, “friendship,” as you rightly say. There’s so much that I have to learn, but I’d love to try.

    • ethnicspace says:

      Hi Jonathon, glad you got to meet Richard. My friend Daniel Fan was there also. Did you meet him? I appreciate hearing you say you read and wondered about the chapter in Justice Project. What kinds of questions did it bring to mind?

  6. Pingback: links for 2010-11-09 | jonathan stegall: creative tension

  7. Hi Randy. I didn’t meet Daniel; I was just there at dinner as I didn’t get to go to the conversation as a whole. But the initial questions I had were basically just around how someone like me can come to the table you speak of. Like where is the table? Is it virtual? Is it physical? What can I do to come to it? I wrote a post at at the time that had my thoughts.

    So anyway, I’m really happy to have found this site, as it seems to be a place where such things can happen. I found the images in that chapter, and here in this post as well, to be really powerful.

  8. ethnicspace says:

    Jonathon, that’s a great post…wish I had read it a year ago, but never too late to begin, eh? The table…hummm….I think it’s open to everyone. I think it’s here, I think it’s when we get together in person, I think it’s the exchange of emails (BtW/mine is and it’s when we talk to others about this stuff. How’s that for a start?

    Anyone else have any thoughts about “the table?”

  9. Porter Doran says:

    Regarding the postmodern churches generally, I have two objections to their argument that they are really new.

    The first is their continued insistence on preserving a Christianity. Of course this is to be expected — no institution consents to extinguish itself. Yet, from an objective distance — from the view of merely humankind — this insistence on maintaining a grasp on a certain population (viz., Christians and their youth) looks much like the old habits. (I might even be able to argue that postmodernism in the church even came to be in order to maintain a slipping grasp on a population.)

    The second is that postmodernism strikes me, as a posture, as a diversion from rather than a repentance of modernism. Here is what I am trying to describe: A modernist may have taught that God can be proved not to exist, or (if a fundamentalist) that God’s Word is the Bible. To repent of modernism, then, would be to teach that these assertions had been falsehoods, had been sins. Instead, postmodernism teaches their irrelevance. Well, I think I have not found very good examples of what I amm observing.

    (And I’ll agree heartily with the comment above about the platinum credit cards — there is something I find suspicious in the fact that emergent congregations are made up of yuppies.)

  10. Porter Doran says:

    (Oh and please keep doing what you’re doing. Please take courage and know that you affect lives and souls.)

  11. Bo Sanders says:

    Porter, while I agree with you that there is a general diversion without repentance, and that alone makes me hesitant to say anything – because I do not disagree with you and I think that what you point out is valid and that the lack of repentance is suspicious… I just think that it would be good to point out a couple areas where I would like to see some caution.

    I know that it is difficult to flesh out nuance … but there is a danger in painting with such broad strokes.

    First, there is not just one “postmodern” christianity or church any more than there is one Native American spirituality or one view that is “Asian” or one denomination that sums up “Christianity” or one “Black” perspective.

    Second, if you listen to the formalized, institutional church (and specifically the conservative voices) they are saying that Emerging christianity is NOT that same and is a VERY different type of christianity. They mean this is a bad way – as a criticism. So I would say that those in power do not see this new conversation as just the same-old thing with new words. Critics of the Emerging church would disagree with your statement. I often hear that it is a dangerous and undermining subversive heretical movement. I think that if you are open to re-look you will see that those in the Emerging conversation may have many flaws – but reinforcing the status quo is not one of them.

    Third, it is impossible to start from scratch. We never begin with a clean slate. We just start from where we are. Having said that – the fact that those who are presently in pastoral positions in affluent or suburban (platinum credit cards) use some of their resources to come and have an alternative conversation about significantly changing the culture and direction of the traditions as the presently stand in the status quo… that might be a GOOD thing.

    If you disagree, I get that. You make some good points. You would be justified in not adopting my suggestions! I just thought that I would throw this out there for consideration of a slightly more generous posture.

  12. Porter Doran says:

    Thanks for letting me disagree!

  13. Nathan Smith says:


    There are definitely different types of postmodernity. The characteristics that I was referring to are of a certain ilk of postmodernity. But you are right in some ways, this conversation has happened before in the medieval era. Pseudo-Dionysius claimed the via negativa (negative theology) where-in God could not be described affirmatively but only by what he was not. This was because God was “ineffable” and indescribable. This perspective on God correlates with hard postmodernism, which bases its belief on the fact that all truth is contextually relative and that there is no meta-narrative.

    A softer postmodernism understands like Aquinas, who both agreed and disagreed with Dionysius, that we live in a world of truth telling that is both adequate yet at the same time not comprehensive. This way of speaking of God is analogical. We cannot speak of God conclusively in a comprehensive way but we can speak of him with assurance, based on his own revelation, adequately. Both require faith but Aquinas’s method allows for our world to affirm certain aspects of God’s character and the truth of reality without necessarily claiming to have it comprehensively figured out. All emergent leaders as far as I know hold to this form of postmodernity.

    The third argument raised by Dun Scotus with Aquinas and others was that we can speak of God quite plainly and we can use human ideas and thought forms to speak conclusively about God. This is “univocal” language about God. If the Bible says it, that’s what it means and nothing else. Our language about God is not only adequate, it “is” language about God. Therefore when we describe what love is, it is the same love that God loves us with except that his is much more intense and full but it is of the same kind of love. Aquinas would say, no, it’s not the of the same kind but of overlapping kinds that are similar and yet not equal. God’s love is not only more than ours but his is also like ours but unlike and more full than ours. Dionysius would say that our love and God’s love are completely different and that God’s is of a sort that is far beyond ours and that we could never love in the same way God does – we just use the same word.

    So, in some ways, you’re right. This conversation has been going on for a long time. The problem is that Aquinas’s model had been the accepted model of knowledge and predication up until the modern era and then a re-birth of Scotus took place. Now we are only returning to Aquinas, while some are going further and returning to Dionysius. The hard postmodern relativists are the ones you are after in your statement but that is not the camp that any of the emergent writers, leaders, etc… are in except for maybe one or two that I can think of. Brian McLaren is one such author who has communicated that he is not a hard postmodern.

    Anyways, it feels better to follow Aquinas’s model and it seems that Native North America has been there all along. I guess that would be the case if a culture understood that the spirit world was real and never was de-mystified. If one lives in a world that interacts with another world that one cannot see then the analogical way of viewing reality would be the best form of “knowing” because it accounts for this world but also for another beyond us where as Scotus and Dionysius can only do one or the other. Modernity may give lip service to the spirit world but it isn’t doesn’t shape reality as much as it just is on the periphery of reality, if at all.

  14. ethnicspace says:

    This is a good conversation. I think Nathan meant to address his comment to Porter, not Peter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to edit another person’s comment or I would have just made the correction. My apologies Porter.

  15. David Jones says:

    I agree with Nathan’s comment,
    “the Emergent movement is more open to their own discrepancies and mistakes, because that approach to knowledge (the fact that we can make mistakes) is inherent to the movement’s identity.”
    That’s the theory at least. As they say, the first step to correcting a problem is recognizing that you have one. Understanding our historical biases is the first step in developing the necessary humility to change. I believe, though, that true change will not come until we make some fundamental alterations in our [white] perspective. Right now I think there is a common belief in the need for non-whites to be invited to the table/conversation. I disagree. Rather, we need to stop setting up tables and making invitations, because that keeps us in control. When whites begin folding their tables and looking to join the conversations that non-whites already have in progress, then perhaps there will be some real change.

  16. Dan Lowe says:

    I’d like to jump in on the “table conversation” if I may. I suppose the best way to do so, as I’ve learned from Randy, my father-in-law, and other close friends/uncles, is to tell my own story.

    Seven years ago, while attending seminary in Kentucky, I ran across a group of Native North American men (and one extremely beautiful woman – now, my wife) who were also attending school there. They were there in a partnership between that seminary and what is known as the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), one great story about what it means to be at the table (but if he wants to, I’ll let Randy tell that one; it’s not so much my own to share). While attending school there, Randy, who was one of these men, invited me to join him and his friends at his acreage. Being extremely curious, I agreed to come; plus, my now wife was going to be there and I wanted to be wherever she was (needless to say, I was smitten at first sight). I think that this was my initial invitation to the table; however, I had a number of large lessons to learn. The first lesson I had to learn is, for me as a white, American male (i.e. one of the majority), the most important lesson to learn and continue learning while accepting an invitation to the table. And that lesson is learning how to listen. What I learned about myself is that I had been created with two ears and one mouth, but I was living as though I had been created with one ear and two mouths. I had to learn how to be quiet and listen to the stories of those who have now become my elders. Another lesson that I had to learn is that listening to these stories can be extremely painful; I had to come to realize that, historically and presently, my actions and the actions of my ancestors that led to the oppression of indigenous peoples in North America had to be repented of. The problems weren’t just “back then;” they were very much current (and still are current). Essentially, I had to come to the realization that I was guilty. There’s much talk about white guilt; for me, admitting white guilt is part of the healing process of the oppressor(s). Another lesson that I have learned is that the West needs to stay at the table, no matter how painful the conversation becomes. As a side note, I’m not meaning to paint this picture as though it is all painful; there is an equally beautiful side to being at the table. However, due to the historical actions of the majority, there are many many painful stories, questions, and things for which we have to be held accountable. I have seen a few people leave the table because of their refusal to listen to these stories, hear these questions, and be held accountable for their actions.
    For me, the table exists in relationship and patience. It is not my table; as history and fruit have proven, the Western table is headed by dominance, greed, and arrogance. However, if there is one table, then the West (for me and my culture, white, American males) needs to sit in its seat rather than sitting in the middle attempting to dictate and drive the conversation. Jonathan Stegall asked the question, “Can I invite others to the table?” My family participates in a sweat ceremony four times a year; I have no right to invite others to this ceremony without asking permission of my father-in-law. For me, at this point, I approach this concept of the table in the same way. If I have a friend who is sincerely asking questions, seeking to grow with, or seeking to walk alongside indigenous folks, then I try my best to put them in touch with Randy, with Richard, with Ray Aldred, and/or others over emails, phone, coffee or dinner. It then becomes the decisions of those two parties to continue the conversations. I always ask permission of these guys before I put folks in contact with them. For me, it is disrespectful to attempt to tell their stories for them. [Randy, if you’ve gotten this far in reading, do you feel as though protocol speaks to this idea about the table at all?]
    As a result of being at the table for the past seven years, I have grown to come to see the world in ways that I never would have imagined. I have had the blessed opportunity to have my worldview shattered on numerous occasions (thank you Randy, for the gift of carrying both an iron and velvet glove on each hand). Little did I know at the beginning where this invitation would lead; I only see glimpses, now, of where it is going. I am one person of the majority culture who will say that moving away from the center, taking my place in my seat around the table, swallowing my pride, and listening to those who can guide me into the healing of myself and my culture will always and forever be my suggestion to others like me. If the West doesn’t learn how to listen, take its correct place at the table, and admit that we need the correction that indigenous Jesus followers have to offer, then the only result will be that all of our talk will make us deaf, and our deafness will lead to our ultimate demise.

  17. ethnicspace says:

    You may continue the conversation here or if it seems more appropriate, continue your comments under the next post. I have re-posted Dan’s comment there as the article. Thanks!

  18. I had a couple of thoughts after reading your article on the Colonizing influence of the emergent movement. I have been in reservation ministry for decades and have been Nitsi ta piksi (Blackfeet) all of my life. Being a born again Native American has given me the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and observe many of the different movements in the Christian world in the last thirty years. I can relate to your comment on the absence of ethnic people in the leadership of most of the movements. I myself have not had a problem with this since I have not sought after nor desired to be a part of man made or systems born of the flesh. Most of my Native Christian friends seem to gravitate more toward the Holy Spirit than to please man. In addition most of us have come from reservation lifestyles and our way of viewing organizations is not the same as our White brethren. At one point in my life I was looking for an organization I could join so I wouldn’t be a lone wolf, I felt I needed to be under authortiy and submitted to someone. This search led me to several organizations which pretty much had the same qualifications; they were enthusiastic about adding an Indian to their group but not the baggage. After listening to one apostolic leader for a long time I asked him, “Are there any Native Americans in your organization?” He replied, “Why no.” I said, “And you will never have any, because where we come from our lives are not as pure and perfect, we are sinners saved by the grace of God!” One thing I have learned is that most Native Americans do not make very good White Men. They have been trying for five hundred years to mold us into their image but it hasn’t worked yet. The other point I wanted to make is that for many Natives we do not want to be a part of the system. There is something in our makeup that has hard wired us for revival. We are looking for and seeking the power of God and the moving of the Holy Spirit. I guarentee that if a Native American feels the anointing of the Holy Spirit you will have someone who is eager and willing to be a part of your movement.

  19. In this talking circle thank you for allowing me to have the stick. (The setting of the table for many First Nation people as I understand it.) Any way, my story does not begin inside the setting of Christianity of any ilk. My family was not committed to any spiritual expression. Therefore I connected to the prevailing winds of the times. The winds blew the Eastern expressions of spiritual life in the 60’s and 70’s, for those who don’t remember or weren’t here yet. The mixture of Western practice of Eastern belief systems has been coined as the New Age and I guess that could be my introduction to the spiritual life. Shortening this, when I became a Christian I did the go to church get involved expectations. Since I came from as one of my professors put it “the seedy side of life” I worked the streets and with disenfranchised peoples. This and the family secret (Indian blood) has lead my wife and I to the Four Corners. But here lies the struggle. As I explored, studied, learned about theological and historical expressions of dominant Christianity it began to dawn on my that Scripture is written from a tribal worldview, if I can use that expression. More conflicting categories began to raise their ugly heads the social setting was agrarian and nomadic and to top it off “Eastern” in expressing justice ect. With all this conflict and contradiction swirling around my son and I travel to Tibet on a prayer journey(10/40 Window) and while there Yahweh speaks during the the worship of the “holy time” we just happened to arrive to experience. This was not an in my heart thing probably because the indigenous instruments and dance created a great sound that to get my attention He had to be audible. Creator asked if these people came to me here and now how would their worship be expressed? My only response – like this. Threw this and other experiences I have come to understand that indigenous worship and social settings of rites of passage instruction and so forth are the reveling of His omniness and diversity of His image that Creator made us.

  20. Pingback: The Justice Conference: Another Ecumenical Emergent Event? | My Sheep Hear My Voice

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