This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series: ‘Emerging Churches’ (Gibbs & Bolger)
I’ve just finished reading Emerging Churches – Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. It is touted (by Brian MacLaren, no less) as the best guide to emerging churches around.
It’s an engagingly-written book, based on interviews with 50 EC leaders in US and UK. Although it therefore incorporates a range of opinions and experiences, the whole thing is given a measure of coherence by the thoughtful commentary of the two researchers/authors.
Gibbs & Bolger summarise the characteristics of emerging churches in their conclusion (pp235ff):-
Emerging churches are not young adult services, Gen-X churches, churches-within-a-church, seeker churches, purpose-driven or new paradigm churches, fundamentalist churches, or even evangelical churches. They are a new expression of church. The three core practice are identifying with the life of Jesus, transforming secular space, and commitment to community as a way of life. These practices are expressed in or lead to the other six: welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers, creating as created beings, leading as a body, and taking part in spiritual activities.
The example, of Jesus, as he engaged his culture with the kingdom, is exemplary for emerging churches. The gospel, as he announced it, was to participate with God in the redemption of the world. It is this gospel that emerging churches embrace.
Modern culture created a secular realm and chased all spiritual things to the margins of society, first relegating them to church and religion and then to the individual’s heart…
Emerging churches do not submit to the dualisms presented by modernity: sacred versues secular, body versus mind/spirit, male versus female, clergy versus laity, leader versus follower, evangelism versus social action, individual versus community, outsider versus insider, material versus immaterial, belief versus action, theology versus ethics, public versus private…
Emerging churches destroy the Christendom idea that church is a place, a meeting, or a time. Church is a way of life, a rhythm, a community, a movement.
Emerging churches build relationships with outsiders; they do not treat them as evangelism objects (as do fundamentalists) or as social objects (as do liberals). Instead, they form relationships with them in which they share the good news at all level.
That, I think, is enough to indicate some of the leading themes of this book. There are some very important priorities and concerns here, and emerging church people have done well not merely to draw our attention to them, but to show how they can be lived out. Emergents protest against self-righteousness, triumphalism, and traditionalism, and call us out of our comfort zones in order for us to engage in the real world.
Critics of emergent need to distinguish carefully between the substance and the style of emergent thinking and teaching. In order to challenge conventional evangelical assumptions, attitudes and practices, emergents use a lot of irony and hyperbole. They shouldn’t be written off as heretics just because they don’t express things the same way as traditional evangelicals.
Similarly, emergents often avoid making pronouncements on topics that are regarded as key by mainstream evangelicals (such as abortion, homosexuality, and hell). Again this might be seen as a protest against the evangelical habit of making a short list of issues that can be used as ‘test cases’ to see if a person is orthodox or not.
But I have some real concerns about this book and the movement/conversation it describes:-
1. There is a lack of biblical reflection and rationale. Certain aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus are privileged over other aspects; those aspects that are highlighted are not placed within the overall narrative of the death and resurrection of our Lord, as is the case in the Gospels.
2. There is, accordingly, an extremely thin account of the saving work of Christ and of the content of the Good News.
3. There is a lack of self-criticism. The authors say (p29), ‘this is a fragile movement that can be marginalised by denominational leaders and killed with criticism by theological power brokers.’ I can understand Gibbs & Bolger’s willingness to let the movement’s spokespersons speak for themselves. But, if you won’t engage in self-criticism and don’t like it when others criticise you, how will you learn what your mistakes are and learn from them?
4. At the same time, there is an over-critical attitude towards evangelicalism. Many emergent leaders seem to come originally from the most conservative of evangelical backgrounds (e.g. Dave Tomlinson and Brian McLaren) and have a regrettable habit of tarring everyone with the same brush or (to change the metaphor) biting the hand that feeds them.
4. There is a sell-out to postmodernity. If emerging churches were seeking to minister to and in postmodern cultures, they should be applauded, but there is a clear sense in this book that many of them are seeking to minister from a postmodern worldview, and that’s a very different thing.
5. I’m not a huge student of postmodernity, but I wonder if it is quite so pervasive as emerging church people make it out to be. It seems that it is highly pervasive in the arts and humanities, and it is therefore not surprising that emerging church leaders represented in this book seem to have a strong preference for the arts. There is a corresponding antipathy towards rationality, objective truth, apologetics, and so on. It leaves me wondering what the emerging church has to say to those with a more scientific background.