Friday, May 19, 2006

My blog is my pulpit

Not my words, but the words of one emergent church leader interviewed as part of the research for ‘quite simply the best book yet on the emerging church’ (cover blurb). Emerging Churches: Creating Christian community in Postmodern cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger probably is the best book yet on emerging church. Gibbs and Bolger seem to have the coolest job titles ever: one is Professor of Church Growth, and the other is Professor of Church in Contemporary Culture. Only thing is none of that means much to you if you are part of the emerging church movement.

The book itself is characterised by the same tensions and creative frictions that make the movement so intriguing, so exciting, so frustrating. It is based around the stories of about 50 church leaders. These people have given up on modern churches to create postmodern churches. Gibbs and Bolger try to categorise the experience of these people using nine practices that they share in common. The text becomes a massage of quotes and analysis and theological descriptives. The quotes are varied, the analysis is qualitative and sympathetic, and the theology is, well, postmodern, postevangelical and ‘cool’.

Ideas and thoughts leap from every page. To begin, here are the nine practices that the authors identify (the first three are core practices):

Identifying with the life of Jesus
Transforming secular space
Living as community
Welcoming the stranger
Serving with generosity
Participating as producers
Creating as created beings
Leading as a body
Taking part in spiritual activities

Now, here are my immediate thoughts. The book is a fascinating read because it confirms almost everything you think you know about emerging church. Most of the leaders were brought up in evangelical cultures as children, and if they weren’t, they were probably converted to Christianity through evangelical or charismatic friends. They articulate many of the frustrations that people have with these movements: ‘I grew tired of church structure.’ ‘Sitting in pews, standing up, sitting down, the same format each week – it just wasn’t working for us.’ ‘While growing professionally, we felt we were slowly dying spiritually… it seemed like we were serving the church more than Jesus.’ ‘I became conflicted as I realized that seminary was not a place for open exploration of theological nuance…’

The interesting thing is that emerging church is described as a movement against pop evangelicalism as much as more historic forms of evangelical Christianity. We find that the leaders are dynamic people – men and women who start businesses, men and women who can build church communities from nothing, men and women who can leave thriving projects to go start something new. They are highly intelligent and highly qualified. In fact, they are an elite. This is the only sad thing about the movement – you begin to realise that, even if you are attracted to many of the principles, and many of the ideas, you probably don’t have the mindset or attitude required to engage.

Emerging church leaders are influenced by a multitude of theologians and thinkers. Karl Barth, Herman Dooyeveered, Billy Graham, Hans Küng, Stanley Hauerwas, Dallas Willard, Douglas Coupland, Stanley Grenz, Lesslie Newbigin, Walter Brueggemann, U2, N.T. Wright, Jack Caputo, Black Sabbath, Gandhi, Jesus, Francis Schaeffer, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Tony Campolo, Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, Carl Jung, Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse (recontextualised, of course!) Couldn’t find a reference to Moby, though!

The influence of NT Wright, in particular, is interesting. However, it is not clear if Wright has influenced the emergent churches themselves, or whether Wright’s work has offered a useful lens that Gibbs and Bolger have used to understand the movement. Wright’s view of the kingdom of God, the missio Dei, and the narrative approach to the Bible all seem to inform many emerging church movements. But, to pick out Wright is really quite arbitrary, because the movement just screams out a veritable hotch-potch of Christian and non-Christian influences. Its emphasis on the kingdom of God is hardly new, given the rediscovery of that motif in biblical studies and in liberation and urban theologies. If there is an emergent eschatology, it could be post-millennial or a-millennial – I’d be surprised if there were many pre-millennialists in the movement. It is almost impossible to define an emerging theology, even if there are claims made about the uniqueness of Christ.

Architecture and clubbing. Painting and meditation. Soup kitchens and drunkards. Drama and multimedia. Participative worship, NGOW (‘Non-Guitar Oriented Worship’). Teaching (optional) ‘We had a logo before we had a venue.’ ‘This group was a vision with a website before it was a church.’

If you are disillusioned with church, read this book, and be prepared to laugh and cry. You will see yourself in many of the illustrations and stories. You will hear echoes of words you have spoken yourself as you read clichés and paraphrases about the secular/sacred dualism that apparently overwhelms the church. You will scream at the disregard for propositional truth, as if reconnecting with cultural and present realities means that verbal communication is bad. But, even if you are more critical than me, you will almost certainly admire the ‘vision thing’ that these people put into action. After all, in the words of Maxi Jazz, him of Faithless fame, ‘you don’t need eyes to see, you need vision.’


Dorothy said...

Re: the vision thing - Proverbs 29 v 18 is often translated as "Where there is no vision the people perish". Vision is under rated by the Church and I think many are indeed dying for lack of it! We need to recapture a sense of vision whether we are 'emerging' or not! Whatever kind of church we belong to in this Post Modern age it is important to keep a clear biblical perspective and to claim the promises of God. If we have stopped dreaming dreams or having visions (Joel 2: 28) we should be asking "why". Dreams and visions make things happen in the church, even in our old jaded much maligned Church of Scotland - hey maybe with vision we will become emergent too...? But I actually think that there is nothing new under the sun where 'church' is concerned. We just give 'cool' titles to ancient ideas which are being rediscovered by new generations of believers...

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