6. Finding God Again: The Emerging Church
The interetsing thing about writing a series blogs is that you don't know where you are going to end up when you start writing them. This series grew out of some thoughts I had on different understandings of God. This, in turn, led to a series about the way our view of God has changed. This present series really is about thinking about God, but in the course of it I am trying to see how our understanding of God is profoundly affected by our own cultural situation. I had expected to get this to point ages ago. But that's the fun! Thanks for sticking with me so far. I will post again in the series later in the week. I will aim for Thusday, but you may hear the odd thing from me before then!
Have a good week!
Finding God Again: The Emerging Church
Many reading this blog may not have heard much about the emerging church. And describing it is not always easy, as even some who would align themselves with it would readily admit. It is strongest in the US, but is also to be encountered, increasingly in other parts of the world, although I haven’t much come across it here in Hong Kong. I hope, however, some of us are at least addressing the same issues.
I strongly agree with Scot McKnight, a NT scholar and Christian teacher who has aligned himself with the movement, that we should let the movement speak for itself. So as I write this blog, I will give some websites and blogs where more information can be found. I myself have found Scot’s speaking and writing especially helpful (see http://www.jesuscreed.org/). Scot has just presented a very interesting and helpful paper on the movement (for a copy see http://www.foolishsage.com/wp-content/uploads/McKnight%20-%20What%20is%20the%20Emerging%20Church.pdf ).
Although it is hard to define what is a very diverse movement, excellent is Andrew Jones (see http://www.tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/). Andrew’s blog is also a great resource and always provocative and interesting. He also has the distinction of now living in my old Diocese. Andrew has written several blogs attempting to give a definition of the movement. Andrew himself is at the very heart of it and gives links to many blogs by fellow travellers.
Those who are part of the emerging church are asking what we should be like as a Church in the cultural context that we now find ourselves in. They are asking what the implications are of contemporary culture for the way we understand the Gospel, for our presentation of the Gospel, and for the way we live out the Gospel. How do we do church in a way that is authentic and faithful to Jesus and his teaching?
Many in the emerging movement began life within very conservative churches. A leading figure such as Brian McLaren is an example of this. People like Brian, however, felt increasingly dissatisfied with the type Christianity that they found within the churches they belonged to. In this sense, the emerging church can be seen as a protest movement within evangelicalism.
It would be very wrong, however, to see it as only a protest. The emerging church is asking questions that I believe we all need to be asking at this stage in our cultural journey. More than that, within the emerging movement there is a very strong emphasis on mission. On not waiting around hoping that people come to us, but being prepared to go out and meet with them in an open and accepting way.
This means changing the way we do church. At one level, this has meant either reordering traditional churches or abandoning them altogether for more user friendly places. Many are now meeting in homes, or pubs, or coffee houses. But there is more to it than simply the physical geography of the church meeting place, important though this is. The emerging church is rethinking the meaning of the church. This has lead to a much greater emphasis on relationships than has traditionally been the case.
In the past, churches defined themselves by what they believed, by statements of faith and credal confessions: the 39 Articles for Anglicanism, the Westminster Confession of Faith for the reformed, the Catechism for the Roman Catholics, and so on. There were propositions that you had to believe if you wanted to be a member. Often these were overt, written, and required a signature. Other times, they were unspoken assumptions, but you soon knew if you stepped out of line. Emerging folk are very suspicious of this sort of approach. They are happier to live with doubt, stress that all truth is relative, and that each generation sees truth through its own cultural glasses. As one person within the movement has expressed it: ‘I grew up that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel life is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in colour.’ Not all, by any means, would want to put it so bluntly, but this quote catches a spirit within the movement.
The emphasis on culture is especially important. For some it is about speaking in a culturally relevant way talking to people where they are now, rather than were they where or where we would like them to be. This can mean keeping a very conservative, evangelical message. I still can’t work out whether he sees himself as part the emerging church movement or not, but Mark Driscoll in Seattle would be a prominent example of this type of approach (see http://www.marshillchurch.org/). As Mark, or Pastor Mark as he is known, will tell you himself, he is one of the most influential pastors in America, based at one of the fastest growing churches, in one of the least churched cities. Love him or hate him, and people do feel very strongly about him, he is having an impact!
For others, however, a more radical approach is needed. Rather than speaking to culture, they are seeking to embrace it. Many believe that contemporary culture has something important even prophetic to say to the church. And that we in the church need to revaluate our message in the light of it. Those who identify with emergent village would take this approach (see www.emergentvillage.com).
This causes some confusion in terminology. Not all emerging church folk would identify with emergent. Those who are critical of the movement have a tendency to equate emerging with emergent to see emergent as typical and defining of the movement. The movement, however, is far more diverse than this and requires a more nuanced critique.
And there have been criticisms. One very notable critic of the movement is Don Carson, a leading evangelical scholar and speaker. Don does not blog, in principle, which is a shame, as it would be good to be able to react with him. He does, however, write! Recently he has written a book on the emerging church, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. I am not sure it is the best book for understanding the movement, it is, however, a very good book if you want to understand the movement’s critics and where they are coming from. Don’t begin with it, but include it in your research if you want to study the movement. You can also find lectures on the movement by Don on the web.
I have been trying to understand the movement for myself. I think it was my work on the Da Vinci Code that gave particular impetus to it as the DVC raises, I believe, precisely the sort of issues that the movement is addressing. I am deliberately calling it a movement and I have even used the word church. Many emerging people do not like this. They do not want to be seen as a potential denomination. They prefer to use the term ‘conversation’ to describe what they are doing.
I like the word conversation, and it is certainly appropriate given that much of the thinking is taking place on the web, using blogs especially. This allows comments and reactions in a very immediate way. The movement itself is still new, original, and exciting. The way that the conversation is taking place means that even if you live in Orkney or Hong Kong, you can still feel yourself to be at the centre of something vital! However, I have used the word ‘movement’ deliberately as I think what is going on has become more than a conversation and that, in my opinion, is no bad thing. I for one am happy to join the conversation and this blog is an attempt to do so.
But more about me next time!