As previously mentioned, I have been reading Emerging Churches: Creating Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Since some Christians are very concerned about the emerging church, some even considering it a heresy, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the emerging church.
First of all, it is difficult to define the emerging church. Pentecostals are those who believe that tongues is the initial evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. Fundamentalist Baptists are King James only and radically committed to the local church, keeping themselves separated. But emerging churches are not so easily defined. What I like about this book is that it is not just one or two people’s idea of what the emerging church is. Rather this book is a overview of many emerging churches throughout the U.S. and the U.K., giving us a sample of what numerous emerging churches are like. I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the emerging church.
The authors present nine attributes that many emerging churches have, the first three of which are necessary to be considered an emerging church. They are: 1) identifying with the life of Jesus, 2) transforming the secular realm, 3) living highly communal lives, 4) welcoming strangers, 5) serving with generosity, 6) participating as producers, 7) creating as created beings, 8) leading as a body and 9) taking part in spiritual activities. Here are some thoughts I have, purposely trying to focus on the positive. The following is from a reflection paper that I have written for the Arrow Leadership Program.
1) Although the impact of postmodern thought is sometimes overstated (modernity still exists and has an influence on many), it is not something that can be ignored. There are changes in attitude and belief and the church must adapt, as it has adapted to previous changes. This is especially true when it comes to evangelism. There was a time when evangelism was effective simply by presenting correct information. If the evangelist explained the result of sin, the salvation achieved by Jesus’ death on the cross and what the Bible says about receiving that salvation by faith, there was a good chance that the person would make a faith commitment. As already mentioned, modernity still exists and there are some people who still respond to the evangelism style of passing on information. However, the effectiveness of that type evangelism has greatly diminished. One of the results of postmodernity is a lessened trust in sources of authority such as the church, pastors or even the Bible. There is still an interest in God and spirituality but the form in which faith will manifest is less likely to be shaped by the opinion of an authority figure. “Becoming good news to another person includes much more than conveying a message. Evangelization in the changing Western context is as much demonstration as it is proclamation.” (p. 147)
Emerging churches are even critical of “friendship evangelism.” While I like friendship evangelism, I understand their concern in that it can become a false friendship that lasts only as long as a conversion seems likely. A better form of evangelism (“good newsing”) is to embrace a community and demonstrate Kingdom life, including verbal acknowledgment of faith in Jesus.
2) Another useful aspect of emerging churches is the emphasis on participation. For too long even Protestant churches have embraced a priest style of ministry. There is one trained clergy who does all of the ministry with the rest of the congregation being passive recipients. Even when there is verbal acceptance of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, in reality that often manifests itself in the valuing of only a small number of gifts. Those who can preach, sing, or play an instrument are included in a worship service, with the rest still warming the pews.
The emerging church seeks to be faithful to Paul’s advice to the church at Corinth. “What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NRSV) While in some of the examples in the book, it seemed as if people were pressured to bring the same gift (a reflection paper, song, etc.), most often the emerging church allows each person in the church to share their individual gifts, with no person left out. There are applications for evangelism as well as allowing seekers to participate in the life of the church is a clear message of their value in the faith community.
3) The emerging church also seeks to remove the boundaries between the spiritual and the secular, seeing all of creation as sacred space. At first this was difficult to accept. In the Old Testament, the Temple differentiated between areas with a grade of holiness with each level. There was the court of the gentiles where everyone was welcome, the court of the women where Jewish women were welcome, the court of the Jews where Jewish men were welcome and the holy of holies where only the high priest was welcome. The Old Testament differentiated not just between what was sinful and righteous but what was clean and unclean, in every area of life from food to clothing. The division between spiritual and secular seems to be a biblical concept.
However, all this must be interpreted through Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4:1-24. Not only does Jesus break boundaries by conversing with a Samaritan woman with a past, Jesus deals with concepts of physical space directly. The Jews and Samaritans strongly disagreed on the proper place of worship. Jesus replied that God’s people were to worship in spirit and truth. Emerging churches embrace this as permission to make everything sacred as long as it is done in spirit and truth. This is not a new concept as many of the earliest hymns were Christian lyrics put to common bar tunes. Artificial boundaries between spiritual and secular have limited the forms in which worship and outreach can take place. As society seeks to secularize itself, the Church needs to sacralize society.
4) One of the emphasis’ of emerging churches is the Kingdom of God. For many years, churches have focused on eternal life, meaning a place to go when you die. This has lead to a neglect of activity in this world that is not directly related to getting people to heaven. Two of the areas that have been neglected are the environment and social justice. These happen to be two areas that postmodern society is very concerned about. When the church switches from an afterlife focus to the more comprehensive Kingdom focus that Jesus taught, many new possibilities open up. Environmentalism and social justice, both of which have strong biblical support become a point of contact between those in the church and those outside the church. This does not mean that evangelicals should switch to a liberal social position that de-emphasizes the afterlife. The Kingdom is not an either/or ideology but rather a both/and worldview. The message of Jesus was about God’s rule in every area of life and afterlife and that should be the church’s position as well.
5) The emerging church also has something to say about leadership. As already mentioned, postmodern society does not have the same awe for authority that modernity had. At one time it was good enough for the pastor to choose a vision, provide a plan as to how that would be accomplished and assign tasks to people to achieve the goal. That entire process is much more complex in modernity. Vision is still important but it must be the church’s vision rather than just the pastor’s. There is a need to share authority with the congregation, making decisions as a community. The emerging church has dabbled in leaderless churches, but many of them have found that unworkable. There will always be people who will rise to leadership, even in the absence of titles. The form that the emerging church is emerging into is one where the pastor works with the congregation as partners, together discovering God’s leading. Although pastors must make some decisions by themselves for practical reasons, the direction and form that the church is moving toward is congregation led with the pastor empowering, informing and training the people.
Although there is much that is positive about the emerging church, there are some concerns as well.
1) One of the major trends of the emerging church is to focus on the life of Jesus. That sounds good but there are some major sacrifices to make that happen. Emerging leaders claim that there has been too much emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus and that they need to return to the life of Jesus. The life of Jesus is very important and should be key to the shape and mission of the church. But to state that there is a conscious decision to remove some of the focus on the cross should cause concern. “We don’t dismiss the cross; it is still a central part. But the good news is not that he died but that the kingdom has come.” (p. 54) In the index of this book, under Jesus there is no mention of his death and there is only one mention of the cross. Is this change in emphasis acceptable? The Apostle Paul stated that the foundation of his message was Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).
This brings up another concern, if emerging churches de-emphasize the cross, they even more so put aside Paul. From the first century, Paul’s letters have been crucial in applying the teachings of Jesus to the ministry of the church. The New Testament is God’s full plan for the church, not just one section, as important as that section might be. While it is admirable that emerging churches want to embrace the life of Jesus, to paraphrase Jesus, “It is this you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)
2) Another concern with the emerging church is its reactionary stance to traditional forms of church. At times there seemed to be almost contempt for the traditional church by the emerging leaders, explained to an extent in the appendix when they get a chance to tell their background. It is interesting to note that there are two ways to define “emerging.” These churches can see themselves as emerging out of the deadness of traditional evangelical churches or they can see themselves emerging into new forms, in a state of flux, humble enough to acknowledge that they do not know their final form. The attitude of emerging leaders will play an important part in how much traditional churches borrow from what the emerging church is doing.
The reactions are not just to traditional liturgical churches that seem to be in decline. Emerging churches also react against newer forms of the church that seem to be healthy and effective in ministry. “Because Gen-X, seeker, new paradigm, and purpose-driven churches are forms that are imbedded in particular cultures, these churches would need to change their practices dramatically (i.e., their church culture) to communicate clearly within a postmodern world.” (p. 45) This statement assumes that currently these churches (which are often mega-churches) are not communicating clearly with the postmodern world, which emerging churches consider to be the dominant culture.
Emerging churches also react against modern churches in their focus on consumer-focused worship. In traditional modern churches, people attend where their personal tastes are met, looking to receive according to their own desires and wants. This is a valid criticism. Emerging churches claim to be moving beyond that self-centred form of worship. However, throughout the book, leaders explain their distaste for soft rock, guitar-driven praise music. They rejoice in that they have been able to create new forms of worship (dance music, finger painting, sculptures, etc.) where they are able to worship in a way that they enjoy. While no worse than traditional evangelical churches, emerging churches are simply more creative in designing forms of worship where their own needs are met.
What is the importance of the emerging church? The emerging church is not the answer for the entire Christian church. If every church became an emerging church, we would lose much of our strength. While I do not consider the emerging church a heresy, it does have some theological weaknesses that leave it open to future dangers. Since there are many people in society with a modern worldview, there is still a strong need for teaching churches, for structured worship and building on the traditions of the past. At the same time, the emerging church is very important for reaching people who have given up on the traditional church. The emerging church is also very important for challenging the modern church to reflect on its presuppositions and to examine new ways to impact this increasingly postmodern society.