Marquand Chapel at the Yale Divinity School is an old-fashioned-looking place. Glass chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, Ionic columns hold up the rafters, and a big golden cross sits on the altar in the back.
But this Tuesday, the chapel welcomed its visitors with a new look. The pews were rearranged in a circular configuration around four speakers who were sitting on stools, and those pews were filled with people who might not normally see the inside of a church.
These changes helped to mark the Emergent Theological Conversation, an event being held at the Divinity School through today. The conference was sponsored by the Emergent Network, a loosely-organized Christian group seeking to reform the way evangelicals think about faith and its relationship to today’s world. Miroslav Volf, a professor of theology and director of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, is the event’s primary speaker.
The rearranging of the pews was a metaphor for the Emergent Network’s larger mission. The “emergent church” movement, of which the Emergent Network is a part, typically reinterprets Christian teachings along what its proponents would call “postmodern” lines. In place of dogmatic rigidity, “emergent Christians” emphasize community fellowship and social responsibility.
Some emergent Christians question such traditional evangelical doctrines as the inerrancy of the Bible and the existence of a hell. In his remarks Tuesday morning, Volf said he questions the piety of a similar evangelical tenet: faith.
“I think that often atheists are closer to God than any theists, than any Christians,” Volf said. “It’s taking God seriously to rebel against God.”
Some churchgoers in attendance said Volf’s lecture was not what they had expected to hear.
“You’re messing up Evangelism Sunday here,” one audience member said to Volf during the conference.
But other patrons of the chapel said the emergent approach aids pastors in addressing and soothing the doubts of those who might otherwise leave the fold.
“I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my Web site saying, ‘If it wasn’t for this conversation, I wouldn’t be a Christian anymore,'” said Brian McLaren, a Maryland pastor in attendance Tuesday whom Time magazine named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America last year. McLaren, one of the movement’s spiritual leaders, has written several treatises and novels with themes that promote the tenets of emergent Christianity.
Still, some who attended the event said they remain unsure whether mainstream evangelicals will support the emergent movement.
Jeff Kursonis, who attends a conservative Presbyterian church in New York City, said his pastor is cautiously supportive of the emergent church. Kursonis said he has received training from his church to help him start an emergent-style outreach for the artist community.
And Anthony Smith, who is part of an emergent congregation in Charlotte, N.C., said students from conservative seminaries in Charlotte have come to services at his church in hopes of converting emergent Christians back to a more traditional form of evangelicalism.
But Smith said that he does not feel alienated from his more conservative brethren.
“I don’t want to be irreconciled to my fundamentalist brothers and sisters,” he said. “We’re all part of one body. At least, I think we are.”
This year’s conference, hosted by the Center for Faith and Culture, is the sixth annual gathering of leaders of the Emergent Network.