I haven’t posted much over the last couple of days because I’ve been thinking and reflecting on a article published last week at WORLDmag.com by Anthony Bradley entitled ‘Farewell emerging church, 1989-2010’ (read the full article here).
The article is very matter of fact, and seemingly authoritative, and on the surface might not by itself seem like something that would be so engaging – but for me it raised a number of questions and got me thinking about many things – let me explain.
The first question for me was, what does this actually mean? Anthony Bradley tells us that emerging church movement is ended – but surely that depends on how you understand the term ’emerging church’?
If by emerging church he means the Emergent Village and all that is associated with it – then I can understand what he is saying – but surely he can’t mean a wider understanding of emerging church? If he does then all of us as Jesus followers need to be worried.
Why? Because the church by it’s very nature is always emerging, since contemporary culture is always changing. Within this context, to say that the emerging church movement is ended is to say that the church as it stands is no longer changing, it has become stagnant, no longer evolving. If that is the case, then the contemporary church is dying, and before long will be ended as well.
Don’t get me wrong in this – I am not saying that it’s the Gospel that changes as culture changes, but how we communicate it. The way the Gospel is explained in one generation might not necessarily be appropriate for the next. The Gospel is solid, but the church that proclaims it must be liquid. The Gospel holds true through the ages, but the shape of the church shifts, emerging renewed and refreshed at different times and in different places to fit the context in which it finds itself, or as Neil Cole explains in his recent book, Church 3.0:
“The essence of the Gospel of the kingdom does not conform to a culture; it transcends the culture and at the same time transforms it from within. Our mission is not to make the kingdom or its core message bend to the culture, but to position it in a way that is both appealing and unappealing at the same time. It must be appealing to people by calling our to the latent image of God to the dark values of sin found within every person and culture. The Gospel does not need to be made relevant; it is relevant and always will be. The issue is not relevance but influence. Our goal should to tap into the image of God found within a people and then offer the powerful alternative to being enslaved to sin.”
And this is my point really, the Western church over the last hundred and fifty years has conformed to the prevailing culture, Modernism, and its proclamation of the Gospel has become too focussed on the mind, seeing reason and knowledge as pre-eminent over experience and relationship. We too easily view education and teaching as our access point to salvation, and focus on programmes and new models of ministry in our futile attempt to try and manufacture spirituality. We have ended up boiling our faith down to a series of logical and linear arguments that we hope will be convincing to the few that are interested enough to listen. Neil Cole again:
“There was a time when many churches condemned people for seeking a spiritual experience. Imbedded in modernism, Christianity had become mostly about a rational belief system where personal feelings were not to be trusted. A search for experience was seen as abandonment of the stability of truth in favour of pacifying ones’s own feelings. This is unfortunate because it has left many churches lacking any real encounter with the spiritual life that Jesus died to give them. Although we don’t base our faith on experience alone, God questions a faith that lacks experience”.
We could discuss all day whether the term ‘post-modernism’ is relevant any longer, and to some degree it would be a waste of time. Post-modernism might have had its day and there now seems to be a reaction against it back towards Modernism. But the new Modernism, neo-Modernism, Scientific Realism or whatever else you want to call it, is highly influenced by the post-modern hubris, because we still live in a multi-cultural, sycretistic and pluralistic world. And that means that experience and authenticity need to be in play in order for the Gospel to be heard.
And this is why emerging church is important – because it inevitably basks in the light of comtemporary culture, and shows that there is a different way of ‘doing church’ outside of the accepted tradition, an alternative path to the one well trodden. It challenges the norm and kicks against the goad, making us reflect, rethink and slowly but surely reform our church praxis.
Which sort of leads me to my second question. What has the contemporary church learned from its recent ’emerging church’ experience?
The thing that really worries me about Anthony Bradley’s article is the underlying triumphalism that seeps through his rhetoric. He seems pleased that, as he puts it, “the emerging church movement has ended”, almost relieved that now the church can go back to what it was doing before. To him, it seems, the emerging church movement is like an annoying fly, that now swotted means that all can go back to normal.
If the church in the USA is happy to see the emerging church movement end but has learned nothing from it then it is a sad day. Thankfully, that does not seem to be the case in the UK, where lessons learned from our emerging and fresh expressions of church are slowing taking root in the mainstream – as the church wakes up once more to the need to experience Jesus not just study him, to live out its life in community, adding value to society and changing it from within through engagement, rather than being closeted away behind closed doors. Maybe the church in the UK is in a different place – more battered and beaten than its US brother – and so more open to seeing that the old ways of doing church are no longer tenable and that change is needed. I just hope that the US church wakes up before its arrogance and intransigence lead it down the same path that we have walked over the last twenty years. And personally, I don’t want to see that happen – and my prayer is that it won’t!
In reality, I think Bradley’s conclusion is more wishful thinking than fact, and that the emerging church movement in the USA is alive and well, but maybe evolved somewhat – more mature and becoming more integrated into the mainstream, maybe keeping its head down a little more, but still there working in the background making a difference by challenging the Modernist ways of the contemporary church, and bringing the practical, spiritual experience of Jesus back into its consciousness.
I hope so anyway, because from my viewpoint on this side of the ‘pond’, that is what it needs!