Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger (2006) gives a sympathetic and insightful account of an important movement within the contemporary church. Subtitled Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, it is based on the views and experiences of 50 leaders from within the EC movement on both sides of the Atlantic. I would like to summarise and review Chapter 2 of the book – What is the Emerging Church?
Emerging churches are defined as ‘missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time’, p28. So far, so good.
It is claimed that ‘Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself’, p29. Insofar as this claim is true, I applaud it. I think that we need to think very carefully about the relationship between the substance of the Christian faith (including its doctrinal basis) and the forms by which it is expressed within the Christian church. Many of the forms (of buildings, roles, music, customs, rituals, and so on) have little or no warrant within Scripture, but are time- and culture-specific. And again, many of these forms belong to a different time and a different culture from our own. So, if EC is seeking to update the forms while remaining faithful to the substance, I’m right there with them. It’s just that I don’t think it is. If many of those who speak on behalf of EC are to be listened to, the substance of the faith is up for revision just as much as the forms are.
EC leaders such as Brian McLaren are particularly critical of their own evangelical heritage and background. It is especially worrying, therefore, to be told that the EC is ‘in many ways a fragile movement that can be marginalized by denominational leaders and killed with criticism by theological power brokers. Whatever reservations people may have, these new voices need to be heard. Many of these innovative leaders are looking for mentors rather than critics.’ Well, yes, but it cuts both ways.
Gibbs and Bolger ask if the EC is about generational approaches to church life; about doing church for Gen-Xers and about holding youth services. But they conclude that that the issue is much more than a generational one: it is about a shift from modern to postmodern culture. If the issue were simply generational, then it could be addressed by modifications to the strategies for worship and preaching. But for these writers the issue is more than this: ‘theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern culture’, p34. This begins to cast doubt on the earlier claim that ‘Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself’.
The next question considered is whether postmodern Christians could still be considered evangelicals, since (it is claimed), ‘evangelicalism was born and given its primary expression within modernity’, p34. This has led a number to follow Dave Tomlinson in talking about themselves as ‘post-evangelicals’. Anna Dodridge, for example, found herself questioning ‘some pretty basic evangelical priciples’, describes herself as having ‘developed and grown away from the evangelical position’, and ‘disillusioned…by evangelicalism’. Others within the EC movement continue to describe themselves as evangelicals, although for some this is a cultural, rather than a theological, identification. Yet others have little interest in the evangelical/post-evangelical debate, or indeed in denominational identifiers. Labels exclude, and so some eschew all labels (‘we just want to become more like Jesus’) or achieve roughly the same effect by embracing all labels (‘we are evangelical and charismatic and liberal and orthodox and contemplative and into social justice and into alternative worship’). Dodridge remarks that for those who come from an unchurched background don’t fall into a post-anything category.
Gibbs and Bolger conclude this section: ‘From a postmodern perspective, the ultimate question is, Why is it important to label oneself as evangelical? Aren’t labels simply artificial divisions that make us feel safe of help us exert control? Why not mine the riches of many traditions? What is obvious is that the eccclesiastical or theological label one decides to wear is of far less concern to emerging churches than how one relates to the gospel and culture.’
The authors then ask, “Can modern and postmodern congregations exist within a local church?” Some of their respondents think that evangelical and postevangelical congregations can work side by side. The Anglican Church, for example, used to accommodating different approaches without too much difficulty. This may be less successful in a free church or American context, because the control that the senior pastor exercises (or is expected to exercise) operates against a church-within-a-church setup.
Returning to the question, What are emerging churches?, Gibbs and Bolger observe that for some the term simply operates as a convenient umbrella term. For many people, church as we know it simply doesn’t work, and the term ’emerging church’ is a way of expressing that we need new forms of church that related to the emerging culture. For others, however, the term is too passive, lacking a sense of urgency with regard to the missional task. ‘Fresh expressions of church’ (a term common in the Anglican church) may capture the essence better. But others like the unformed, unfinished process implied by the term ’emerging’.
Mark Scandrette is quoted as saying, “The emerging church is a quest for a more integrated and whole life of aith. There is a bit of theological questioning going on, focusing more on kingdom theology, the inner life, friendship/community, justice, earth keeping, inclusivity, and inspirational leadership. In addition, the arts are in a renaissance, as are the classical spiritual disciplines. Overall, it is a quest for a wholistic spirituality.”
Gibbs and Bolger identify three core practices: (1) identifying with the life of Jesus, (2) transforming secular space, and (3) living as community. ‘The way of Jesus’ means that “the life of Jesus and his engagement with his culture, as embodied in community and given verbal expression in the Sermon on the Mount, is prescriptive for Christians. Modern readings of Jesus are prone to dismiss his life and focus on his death and resurrection and are preoccupied with a believer’s interior experience of ~Christ. In contrast, Jesus welcomed the outcast, hosted the stranger, and challenged toe political authoriities by creating an alternative community. Jesus’ entire life, including his words, established the way of Jesus, and it is this way that has greatly influenced emerging churches.”
The following definition of emerging churches emerges. ‘Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures’. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.’
There are certain recent forms of church that cannot be regarded as ’emerging churches’ by this definition. For example, seeker churches, purpose-driven churches, Gen-X churches and youth services may meet the criterion of creativity, but not the other criteria.
The basic methodology creates a problem. What we get is an account of church which is based on the perceptions of EC practitioners rather than on Scripture and theological reflection thereon. In fact, there is very little of either in this book of almost 350 pages.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must not only applaud, but follow, emerging church people in their deconstruction of the culture-bound elements of the modern church. But it seems to me that they are looking too much at the perceived needs and expectations of so-called postmodernism and too little at the abiding principles laid down in Scripture. Like many protest movements, it has an unhappy tendency to throw the baby out with the bath-water, to set up an either-or mentality. It may well be that the Sermon on the Mount is not sufficiently lived out by Christians today. But we have no right to set its teachings against those that relate to the saving work of Christ through his death and resurrection. The emerging church may well be postevangelical, but if that means that it has departed from the good news that Christ died for sins according the the Scriptures, and was raised from the dead, then to that extent it is fatally flawed.
I say, let’s be thoroughly radical in form and expression, but absolutely faithful in belief and doctrine.