You’ve had this experience too, haven’t you? It’s a warm Sunday morning and you’ve managed to arrive at St Churchins early enough to be there for the start of the service. You’ve enjoyed seeing fellow Christians, and you got to sing something other than In Christ Alone. (Great song, but it’s had a nice decade-long run.)
It’s now 15 minutes into the sermon; a good one that has pointed out that being at Jesus’ right or left is about service, not glory. But, after being with your friends last night for dinner, you somehow feel that this talk—this whole service—doesn’t scratch where they itch. You can’t quite figure out how it might change someone’s life.
Do we need to do this all in a completely different way? Something really radical, not just quoting Lady Gaga in the sermon? Maybe it’s time to tear it all down and pretend we were figuring out how to do church in our context from scratch.
Others, having felt this way, have become a movement. Many of them grew up in churches like ours and have observed the world growing up around them. They see the same world as we do: a world that’s pretty loose with the truth. It has embraced the postmodern love of being ambiguous about truth and thrilled by pleasurable experience. Not just in Australia, but in the USA, right across Europe and all over the Western world, there’s a sense that just explaining a gospel outline, or running a cracking good Sunday service, is not enough.
They have emerged as a series of new church communities—or, as they prefer, communities of Jesus. They’ve decided that we need to go back to square one if we want others to become part of the Christian community. They’re doing some radical stuff… sometimes they don’t even have Sunday services. (Yay, no morning tea roster!)
We’ll call them what they like to be called, the Emerging Church. I suspect, at first, both you and I would love to be part of one. We’d love the fresh ideas, the outward focus, the freedom (did someone say this week we’re watching Modern Family instead of a study?). We’d probably be initially enthused to live an authentic life of serving Jesus.
So, in what follows, I want us to look over the shoulder of the Emerging Church communities to see what we can learn and if we should get on the change train. They’ve been around for a while now, but their influence is only just starting to find its way into churches like yours and mine. To get a picture of what it means to be emerging, we’ll firstly take a look at their main characteristics, and secondly see how it affects the way they do church. Then we’ll figure out if it’s time to abandon St Churchins and go to the pub to pray.
There are five characteristics that you would see if you step into the circle of an emerging community, and they fit into five P words (the good news is that even cool emerging people still do daggy alliteration). The five Ps are: provocative, postmodern, practice-oriented, post-evangelical, and political.1
Emerging communities are provocatively calling us to be part of a radical change in the Christian faith. Almost everything they write sounds like a revolutionary movement in the manner of the Reformation that we should join before we get left behind. There are books like Neil Cole’s Church 3.0 and Brian McLaren’s Church on the Other Side. If we were to have them over for a barbeque, it wouldn’t be out of place for them to speak of themselves as agents of a brand new type of church in a new type of world. It’s all very urgent.
The second P is postmodernism. This idea has been around for a while, and says that the age of knowing truth absolutely is over. In response, emerging communities favour the postmodern love of story, imagination, mystery and ambiguity. Our neighbours and friends simply don’t share the same truths we’ve always known, or the same stories or backgrounds. Frankly, they’re suspicious of people claiming to have the truth. But if churches show them an experience of the truth, they grab on to it. If our communities love like no other, then they’ll know that we have the true source of love. Postmodernism means that the way that truth is understood and communicated has fundamentally changed.
The final three characteristic P’s are briefer (normally preachers who say this are lying… I’m not). Emerging communities are practice-oriented, post-evangelical and political. Flowing out of postmodernism, they prefer to be seen as communities that practice the way of Jesus rather than just believe certain statements about him. What you practice (orthopraxy) trumps what you believe (orthodoxy). They think this because it doesn’t always follow in church history that those who believe the right things live the right way. This is what makes the movement claim its post-evangelical tag, in that it is not concerned with formulating systematic theologies or creeds. And finally, the movement is mainly politically left wing. In the USA they vote Democrat, Labour in the UK, and in Australia probably the Greens and Labor. No-one insists on this, but it is predominantly the case.
Here’s the thing: even though the emerging movement is really hard to pin down because it’s not a denomination, all of them share the characteristics of a protest movement seeking to change the way we do church in a postmodern culture. They’ve felt the sense that their church experience doesn’t scratch where our world itches and they’re taking drastic action. Whether you went to Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Small Boat Big Sea in Manly, or the Ikon group at a pub in Belfast, you’d feel part of something that’s trying for big church change.
Now that we’ve seen the characteristics, we can watch how it changes doing church. This might be the time to highlight all the things you can email to your pastor and insist on this week. The things that stand out the most are an emphasis on community, orientation to culture, experiential worship, and a collaborative approach to leadership.
Community is central to the way emerging communities do church. It’s hard to find any of them that do not refer to themselves as a community. If you read their websites and blogs, you’ll discover they are described as ‘a community that exists by, in, and for mission’, ‘the emerging community’ or ‘biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter-culture communities’. Actually, almost no-one uses the word church. We’d have to rename our St Churchins to St Communitians. It’s clunky, but for those who are emerging it would be an obvious first step.
This emphasis on community is seen as both a postmodern reaction to individualism, and a return to biblical principles. Some of their leaders lament that the gospel in modern times has been turned into little more than a simple plan describing how God would save individual souls from hell. Old modernist thinking has swallowed the communal nature of the gospel and turned churches into little more than places to gain salvation cards and life-coaching on the way to eternal reward.
When the community is the focus, Sunday gatherings are not. Larger meetings are generally seen as a barrier to authentic community and an indulgence of individual consumerism. Large gatherings are given a much lower priority than smaller family groups. The movement prefers to see itself as a network of independent but interdependent small communities. Emerging churches insist that, if we are to do church in a twenty-first century world, we need to put authentic community at our heart.
The next difference in the way emerging communities do church is that they see themselves primarily as a mission movement. Everything they do is measured through the lens of whether or not it helps the mission.
Each community identifies as people who have been swept up in God’s mission to redeem a new community for himself in a fallen world. They trace this work of God back to the wider narrative of the Bible, usually starting with the call of Abraham, progressing to God’s work in Christ, and now continuing through God’s people. God is a God on a mission, and his people are a community that have been formed by God’s mission of love, reconciliation and renewal in Jesus Christ. The focus is not on personal salvation, but on being ‘called out as a spiritual family’ for the mission of God.
It follows then that in everything they do in their ‘orientation to culture’ they do as missionaries to that culture. The world we inhabit is no longer predominantly Christian, nor even predominantly ex-Christian, but a pagan society with false gods. We should see ourselves primarily as on mission to a post-Christian, postmodern culture. The importance of the mission gives equal value to all activities. Serving at a soup kitchen is as valuable as gathering together; mowing your neighbour’s lawn is equal to reading the Bible one to one. Emerging communities are missionaries taking the community of Jesus to a pagan world.
A third difference in emerging groups is a renewed focus on worship: God should be truly encountered in their community gatherings. This means more mystery, multi-sensory experiences and diverse contributions.
In keeping with the supposed postmodern love of mystery, gatherings embrace a level of uncertainty. If you think the in-jokes at your church about Steven and Ann’s wedding are embarrassing, it’s nothing compared to the kind of stuff that might happen in an emerging gathering with little or no explanation. They want things to be a mystery to try and invoke a sense of awe in worshippers. They might play repeated loops of Hebrew or Greek readings of the Biblical text over music with no translation or context. People might draw abstract things and stick them up, or make clay models. There is a desire to present some things as unknown and transcendent so that God is truly encountered in worship.
Worship also has to be multi-sensory because in our postmodern culture truth has to be experienced not just spoken. Some gatherings might just look like a lot of candles, dim lighting, and abstract creeds of Christendom, with people doing several things at once in different parts of the room/s. But all of it is aimed at creating the sense of mystery and spirituality that is apparently lacking from modern culture and churches. This is also coupled with an abundant use of artwork and multimedia to allow people to connect with truth on multiple levels.
We’ll take a look at one last key difference in the way this movement does church before we consider whether or not to sleep in on Sunday and join in the protest. The emerging approach to leadership avoids hierarchy and focuses on collaboration.
All sorts of people who have led the emerging movement don’t want anyone to be called leaders. One emerging thinker, Brian McLaren, is worth hearing from:
Leadership is characterized by authenticity, teams, spreading tasks, reshaped expectations to be less corrosive to spiritual and family life, a knowledge of the cost and suffering, and love and spirituality2
Leadership is not a position, so much as a shared responsibility of the community. There is no sense of hierarchy and consequently decision-making resides in the community without reference to a higher authority. There’s a staunch effort to avoid a new denominational structure as they embrace the mindset of an organic network of like-minded communities who can learn from each other in conversation.
Want to start emerging?
Does it feel like something our church might need? Must we join the movement that’s trying to rebuild the way they do church in postmodern cultures? Should we join the emerging movement to become authentic, collaborative communities experiencing God as we participate in his redeeming mission?
The answers are, at each point, absolutely yes and absolutely no.
For the rest of the article we’ll take a look at how emerging church practices and beliefs might appear at your church, and which ones to reject and embrace.
Ambiguity and experience over truth
This is something we should definitely do. Those of us who have been around church for a long time have come to believe certain things about life that are not clear in Scripture, or at the very least require a fairly sophisticated reading to understand them. Our approach to things like dating, slavery, sexuality, work, who can preach, and money are all quite complex. To someone who has no idea of biblical theology or the wider biblical story of salvation, it will be a long time and a lot of work before the ambiguity clears. We might act as if it’s a given that believers and non-believers shouldn’t date. But unless we explain that world view in the context of God’s wider story, it may appear to others as an arbitrary rule that gives leaders power over other lives.
We’ve got to be prepared for people to ask difficult questions and to strongly doubt things we hold quite firmly. They need much more time, and much more experience of the truth lived out in order to understand and hold to the doctrines we believe. It’s simply not enough for us to invite them on Sunday to hear about God’s love for his children unless they have seen God’s love in the way we love our own children. How has your growth group made an attempt to show others the difference Jesus makes to the way you do community and relationships? Or do you just get better at more succinctly explaining truths that mean nothing to our non-Christian friends?
On the other hand, allowing ambiguity and embracing experience as our key aim is something we should absolutely avoid. It’s a mistake of the emerging movement to dump exploring truth claims to the bench. We cannot be taken in by the postmodern rejection of absolute truth. Scripture at times presents very clear statements of truth, and to pretend this isn’t the case avoids wrestling with difficult truth claims in the Bible and relegates it to being just another voice in the conversation.3 While emerging communities continue to minimize the role of God’s word in God’s church, they risk disconnecting from historical Christianity and raising a generation of followers of religion instead of followers of the mystery revealed in the risen Lord Jesus. Don’t avoid truth. Face it, wrestle with it, and know that God has it and can show it to you through his Word.
The emerging movement is not the first to notice that we in the West are in a post-Christian world. They are perhaps the first to insist that this means the way we do church must radically change.
We should definitely be missionaries to our culture. The urgency of the emerging movement is a critique of an attitude that is sometimes present in our own churches: the idea that we are chaplains to a society drifting from its Christian morals. When we see ourselves in this light we make it our duty to use our energy and effort to defend our moral positions on dating, sex, marriage and money in the belief that people just need to be shown again that this is good for them. We must gently call them back to obedience to their God. Sometimes our Facebook feed has more links to articles about marriage than anything else.
The emerging communities challenge us to see that we now live in a pagan society with pagan gods and pagan morals. Our God is not their god. Our energy and effort must go into living out the gospel for their good while we proclaim to them the glory of the cross of Christ. It’s our God-given mission. Looking down our noses at pagans can make us just like the Pharisees. As the old saying goes, telling pagans to behave is a little like putting band-aids on cancer.
But we absolutely should not be solely defined by mission. This relentless focus in emerging communities has started to result in some worrying trends. The movement has styled itself as a protest against what it sees as the pragmatic modernist mega-church where things are done because they work for getting people there on Sunday. Ironically, emerging churches have come to redesign their gatherings until they work for getting people into their communities. They have become an equally pragmatic beast themselves. More worryingly, the mission has become the only criterion for figuring out what should be done and how it should be done.
At this point, the movement fails to wrestle with the big questions of the biblical narrative that it so relentlessly calls others back to. What was the nature of the people of God before the fall and before Abraham? What will be the nature of the people of God in heaven? How does this impact the identity of the people of God right now? If we turn to Scripture, the prophets looked forward to a time of a heavenly gathering which has nothing to do with mission (Isa 2:2-4, 56:6-8; Joel 2:15-17). Furthermore, Revelation 21-22 depicts the people of God worshipping him in God’s final kingdom, which, needless to say, will not see the people on mission. There is a greater depth to God’s people than God’s people just being missionaries.
The way we ‘be church’ and ‘do church’ in churches like ours often has a rich biblical basis and Christian tradition. That is, it’s like it is for reasons other than growth or mission pragmatics. Some churches see themselves as a community that reflects the nature of the Trinity, or as little colonies of heaven, a community defined by the suffering and servanthood of the cross for the glory of the Father. The point is, it’s highly likely the leaders of St Churchins have well-thought biblical rationales for why you do what you do.
To be driven solely by pragmatics of mission makes the classic ecumenical mistake of moving the church from being a company of the redeemed to those primarily being involved in the ministry of redemption. Just looking at our mission leaves many questions about the essential nature of God’s people unexplored.
It’s all about community
Many of us have been in churches that started out as thriving havens of relationship, restoration and renewal as the gospel shaped us and others. Over time we’ve developed staffing models with pastors assigned to Relationship, Restoration and Renewal. Then they develop events and programs for each of their areas. Before we even noticed, we became more worried about having enough money for our new program than whether or not the person next to us was having troubling doubts or a failing marriage.
We definitely should embrace a community focus. One of the key problems in our society is that people are more connected than ever but feel the opposite. When we take time to genuinely care for them, explain things to them and be with them, it is a powerful witness. What’s more, it’s a reflection of who God is: Father, Son, and Spirit in perfect relationship taking initiative to bring the undeserving into fellowship with him. A non-Christian friend of mine once remarked to me that his Christian friends had often invited him to things, but no-one had ever sat with him late at night talking about what they believe. He wanted to connect with them and talk about life. Are you more concerned about your programs and events or perfect belief statements than the real need for friendship and community that those around us have?
We should also absolutely avoid a relentless focus on community. Church isn’t just a community, it’s God’s community. So while community can help explain what church is, it cannot replace the concept of church. It makes the mistake of putting the horizontal over the vertical. It puts the importance of relationships between people as more important than the relationship between each individual and God.
This is an astoundingly dangerous error, an error we must be vigilant in avoiding. For if we over-emphasize community we downplay the problem of our sin against God and the importance of the Cross.
In many emerging communities, sin is not primarily an issue between individuals and God, but an issue of whether or not “persons and groups… share our missional commitments and… willingness to accept and follow personal and corporate ethical commitments that… [are] appropriate to this mission”.4
Sin in this paradigm is an issue in the community before it is an issue with God, horizontal before vertical. Sin in this paradigm is an issue so far as it affects the mission, not how it affects God. It’s not that emerging communities think there is no sin against God, but rather that the relentless community and mission focus hides the question about the status of the relationship between God and individuals. Their first question is not “Does this person love God?” but “Does this person share in and contribute to our mission in an appropriate and authentic manner?”
The Scriptures present the church as a ‘holy priesthood’ in which individuals are ‘sanctified’ so they can be presented ‘spotless and blameless’ (1 Thess 4:3; 1 Pet 2:9; 2 Pet 3:14). We are rebels who in our hearts hate God and all that he stands for. Without the blood of Jesus shed on the cross, we are condemned to hell as we should be. Me, you, each one of us (individually!), needs to confess our rebellion, seek forgiveness from Christ, and joyfully become part of the company of the redeemed declaring the praises of the glorious God who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Start a small protest
The emerging movement ought to give us a new sense of urgency to be authentic communities who do church well in a postmodern world. Allow mystery, embrace some ambiguity, be a radical community. Perhaps the programs and events are not so important, and some things are not as clear as we’d thought.
But in the midst of this we must hold to the unchanging proclamation of the gospel message: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. It will always be the case that many will reject it. But the church will always gather as God’s holy people, centred first on him, and unstoppable in our desire to proclaim his Christ to our world.
- S McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church”, Christianity Today, Vol. 51(2), 2007, pp. 35-39. ↩
- B McLaren, Church on the Other Side, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 166ff. ↩
- If you want to follow up on this problem, Don Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church shows the risk the emerging movement faces of detaching from historical Christianity and failing to engage with how the Bible itself offers a critique of the postmodernist approach to truth. ↩
- T Conder, “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2007, p. 102. ↩