The Minister looked out over the congregation. Around 2,000 had gathered for morning worship in this surburb of Sydney, Australia. Every eye was on him as they awaited his message for that morning. “Many of you are here, but you don’t want to be here,” he began. “You are tired of church but come out of obligation. My suggestion is that you leave and don’t come back. But if I can be of any help in what you end up doing for the kingdom, then give me a call.”
It wasn’t the only thing he said, but I have confirmed from the Minister that this remarkable invitation actually did happen. It reflected his belief that modern church structures and life stifle true engagement with the world, and that church can be seen in broader ways than we have traditionally come to define it. Some 1,000 left, many to form Christian communities based in workplaces across the city. The announcement didn’t come out of the blue.
The Minister, James Thwaites, the Pastor of a joint congregation made up of Uniting and Assemblies of God congregations, who heads up the ‘Church in the Market Place’ faculty of the Wagner Leadership Institute, Australia, had been preparing his congregation for some time.
Many value his books on this whole area: titles such as The Church Beyond the Congregation, Church that works, Renegotiating the Contract: The Death and Life of the 21st century Church, tell you where he’s coming from.
His plea to his church is arresting. Can you imagine the minister of your church saying that? It is but one example of the sort of activity suggested by writers and thinkers within what has been called ‘emerging church’ – a loose mixture of groups from within and outside the mainstream churches who are seeking to experiment with ways of following Christ that go beyond the normal church practices and structures (see January’sChristianity+Renewal for a fuller definition).
Some believe these fresh expressions of church are a necessary addition to the styles of church that must spring up, if the UK church is to survive and flourish.
If you look at websites discussing the Emerging Church issues you will read that many see the church as a dying ‘institution’, too wedded to modernism to communicate with the western citizens of our day who are sceptical of groups claiming to ‘have the truth’. Furthermore, many would argue that this is not church pandering to the spirit of the age, but new forms are required if we are to be true to the Bible.
It is too early to critique a movement that is so varied and experimental, not least because generalisations don’t apply. Nevertheless, the observations and convictions of some of the writers and thinkers, although not all new, represent a significant challenge to the ways many churches operate, and the fact that someone is experimenting, doesn’t mean we can’t ask whether their behaviour is wise. Experiments go wrong after all! So we will look at three of the many areas that emerging church writers focus on: What is church? Who is included? What leadership does it require? After each we will look at the questions proponants of emerging church ask of mainstream church and the concerns we might have.
What is church?
- That most churches have moved away from the pioneering spirit of ?the early church to be focused on ‘set meetings’.
- Many Christians find commitment to church activities leaves no time or energy reaching work colleagues and friends.
- The language and assumptions of most churches are antagonistic to most postmoderns.
- There is very little creativity in many church services designed to reach those outside church.
- Churches don’t spend time encouraging their members in personal ?witness and understanding people with a postmodern mindset.
- Emerging church writers, analysis of the demise of the church in the west could be analysed differently. The church in other parts of the world (Africa, south east Asia, South America,) has seen rapid growth, with structures and approaches that are pretty similar to the styles being written off by emerging church writers. Some churches in the UK are making headway too. Is it because postmodernism hasn’t affected these places, or is it because the church in these areas more vibrant?
- A church is by biblical definition, a group of those ‘called together’ by God. This definition may free church from the ‘trappings’ that have little to do with the Bible, but in some cases Emerging Church writers judge that the product (the church community) is not attractive to outsiders, as if the people who gather to worship are the ‘focal point’. Isn’t this like me failing to take a friend to see my favourite football team because I didn’t think the socio-economic background of the fans wouldn’t be to their liking? By all means work with affinity groups in evangelism, but when it comes to nurture, the church is diverse in age, background and outlook – that’s its genius. The apostles were concerned to tell people how to get right with God. There was little or no comment on whether the community of believers was ‘culturally relevant’ or not. They hoped their witness to God would be attractive but were equally aware that some would not wish to join them (see Acts 5:13).
It is out where people live, work and relate that the real battle for the church’s future will be won or lost.
Disillusioned by modern church and its failure to reach and keep postmoderns, many emerging church writers and thinkers like Thwaites are reexamining what mainstream churches would understand as ‘church’. Dan Kimball, author of The Emerging Church quotes from The Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder, when he states: ‘Reformers, in their effort to raise the authority of the Bible and ensure sound doctrine, defined the marks of a true church: a place where the gospel is rightly preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is exercised. However, over time these marks narrowed the definition of the church itself as a “place where” instead of a “people who are” reality.’ We need a mental shift in the way we understand church, from the church as the ‘meeting and the building’, to the church as the ‘people on a mission’.”
Thwaites goes further: “The greatest challenge the church faces in this day is to impact a society that is moving further and further way from its buildings, its programmes and its preaching. If we are to meet that challenge, I believe we will need to transfer much more of the resources of the body of Christ from the present congregationfocused paradigm out into the every day life of the saints. It is out where people live, work and relate that the real battle for the church’s future will be won or lost.”
So emerging churches don’t typically look like church as we understand it. They are not ‘meetingcentric’, but shape their ‘fellowship’ around relationships, whether with each other or the people they seek to reach. Sermons, songs and hymns, won’t necessarily feature. They may not meet on a Sunday. Their leader may not be called ‘pastor’. The use of drama, multi-media presentations, or ancient symbols may feature. Some will meet in the workplace, café or leisure centre. The governing concern is living for Christ in a way that relates to and engages with the rest of the world and encourages a greater interface with those outside the Christian community.
Not all emerging churches are missional of course. Andrew Perriman, a church planter in central London and editor of the Opensource theology website says: “For some, the motivation has been the desire to find more congenial modes of worship and community, whereas others have been attracted by the missional potential of an escape from the cultural dead-end of evangelicalism.”
Who’s in and who’s out?
- The style of much personal witness offends hearers as much as the content.
- Churches have become so rigid on doctrinal matters that they make members self righteous and exclude enquirers.
- Many churches never hear talks on the kingdom of God.
- The Gospel message is often trivialised as ‘believe this and you’ll be all right’.
- A journey may be a helpful metaphor but may deny the definite change when I come to faith. It may help to agree that we are all on a journey but if I have a disease and know the cure, but I serve them best if I take the medicine and offer some to them. I am not being arrogant about my certainty?– just honest.
- The Emerging Church writers are right In saying that teaching on the kingdom has been lost, but neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers undervalue the cross. Between a third and a quarter of the Gospels focus on the last?week. The early apostles’ preaching focused on Christ’s death and resurrection. The apostle Paul could say by way of summary of his message, ‘we preach Christ crucified.’
- Can a centred theology work in practice? A disposition that is inclusive is always more likely to ‘win friends and influence people’. However, once you are centred on Jesus you need to define, which Jesus? Once you say,?‘the Jesus of the Bible’ you then move on to accept that Jesus is Lord, as most emerging church leaders do. The implication is that you accept his teaching, including the need to ‘do all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew?28:20f) and you are into bounded set – wanting to take care to live as Jesus did!
- Are theological distinctions a bad thing? It may suit an ecumenical agenda to reduce distinctions. But Emerging Church groups claiming we can take from the best of all traditions are like the universalists who claim that ‘all religions lead to God’. They insult the very traditions from which the truth is taken,?ignoring the historic tensions and battles over theological truth that caused these distinctions. God forbid that we should be nasty towards people who disagree with us, but if we don’t have convictions about what we believe, God help us.
Churches in the evangelical/ Charismatic tradition have tended to divide the world into the saved and the lost. To caricature, the saved have prayed the ‘sinners prayer’, or responded affirmatively to the ‘Gospel’ in some way - the lost are ‘outside the kingdom’, ‘hell bound’, and ‘need the Gospel’.
Emerging Church writers prefer to talk a little more loosely, less keen to create benchmarks of certainty and more to acknowledge that ‘we are all on a journey’. Many take their inspiration from the Gospels. The disciples were clearly at various stages in understanding and following Christ – even ‘the twelve’ were confused about Christ’s identity and purpose.
In a joint interview with Christianity+Renewal Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, USA, and author of many books on Post-Modernity and Emerging Church, and Steve Chalke, founding director of Oasis Trust, agreed that Jesus’ message was largely the kingdom of God, not ‘trusting in his death for salvation’. McLaren and Chalke speak of the need to stress ‘original goodness’ alongside original sin, helping to create less rigid distinctions and connecting points that are less hostile and more amenable to the postmoderns’ distrust of ‘universal truths’. The mood is not the courtroom seeking to ‘obtain a verdict’ but the pub, ‘having a natter about what is going on in our lives’.
John Drane builds on this idea in his book, Faith in a changing culture:‘Evangelism is not about Christians working on God’s behalf because God is powerless without them. Effective evangelism must start with recognising where God is already at work, and getting alongside God in what is going on there. God’s story, not ours, is the authentic starting point.’
The truth, the whole truth?
The shift to a less marked understanding of who is in and who is out is described by some in terms of bounded and centred sets - an idea introduced by Paul H Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical College of Divinity, Illinois. Bounded sets refers to the belief that those in the group are bounded by the truth as they understand it within their denomination, or church. There is uniformity in belief and practise. Some Emerging Church writers favour centred sets which operate differently. The centre (Jesus Christ as Lord) is clearly defined and Christians are recognised by their relationship to the centre (either moving toward or away). There is no uniformity because individuals are at different levels of knowledge and character growth. What should concern us is whether someone is focused towards Jesus, not whether they conform to our understanding of what Christianity is and how it operates.
McLaren explains this disposition: “How different is this missional approach tothe ‘rhetoric of exclusion’ that worked so well in modernity: ‘There are blessings to being on the inside. You’re on the outside and so can’t enjoy them. Want to be a blessed insider like us?’ In contrast, missional Christianity says, ‘God is expressing his love to all outsiders through our acts of kindness and service. You’re invited to leave your life of accumulation and competition and self-centeredness to join us in this mission of love, blessing, and peace. Want to join in the mission?’”
What leadership is required?
- The church has depended too much and for too long on the autocratic leader.
- Most church leadership structures serve management needs but not leadership ones.
- Leaders with apostolic, evangelistic and prophetic gifts are undervalued in most church settings.
- Few churches ask the all important ‘why’ questions and are prepared to be radical in the solutions they suggest.
- Leadership is a crucial element in the life of any church and Emerging Church writers rightly identify the poverty of leadership in many church cultures. The trouble is that many Emerging Church leaders admit that they don’t know where they are going. This is fine in terms of experiment, but does God intend us to be as clueless as some of the groups appear?
- The missional church assumes a high octane level of discipleship among believers who are prepared to be true disciples of Christ in their other-centred pursuit of people who are outside the church. The writers and leaders of emerging church are motivated in this way, but are others within their ‘church/group’?
- Leadership of a group that is vague about who’s in and who’s out makes church discipline such as exercised in the New Testament difficult. Who decides on behavioural norms?
- The New Testament focused on building godly Spirit-filled communities. It was assumed that a vibrant loving witness would flow from people with a heart for God and what he is doing in the world. As author and Pastor John Piper puts it, ‘mission exists because worship doesn’t’. Worship means the whole of life and isn’t confined to meetings but in the midst of mission, are some emerging churches ignoring this core element to relating to God?
Too long have we seen leadership portrayed as one man, with the charismatic personality, rallying the troops to his vision, leading the way, conquering the mountain Emerging church leaders believe that a different style of leadership is imperative if the church is to make an impact. Kimball says: “It is the leaders of our churches who will need to move from the one-man hero warrior conqueror CEO to being more of a thinker-architectshepherd. Too long have we seen leadership portrayed as one man, with the charismatic personality, rallying the troops to his vision, leading the way, conquering the mountain. This has been so destructive really when we look back on the aftermath of most of what has occurred with this type of leadership.”
Frost and Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of things to come for the 21st century church (Hendrickson 1565636597), focus on the need for what they call APEPT leadership including the Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, the Pastor and the Teacher in leadership structures. They believe APEPT ministry is the best mechanism for achieving mission and ministry effectiveness and Christian maturity according to Ephesians 4. They bemoan the way most churches have a pastor or teacher but no one else in fulltime leadership. They believe that in post-Christendom context, mission becomes the focus with the fivefold ministries in operation.
Emerging churches are sceptical of viewing one person as the overall head and dislike authoritarian models focused on one person. Their leadership style focuses on being creative in achieving missional goals within the framework of biblical principles - taking risks, experimenting, dreaming, modifying being the key words. They believe only a radical approach will halt the malaise in church life.
New church movements go through typical stages. The new style of church is formed. Some join, some criticise. The movement develops and it reaches the radar screen of heads of denominations who give their response. Some die out, some are modified and some gradually become part of the agreed and normal outlook of the church. What will happen with Emerging Church?
The concerns outlined will lead many Christian leaders to reject this thinking as an aberrant approach destined to flourish in a few places for a while and then run out of steam. But the insights, especially on the need to think imaginatively about outreach to ‘postmoderns’, represent such a challenge to the church to merit serious consideration. Already many of the established church leaders are considering how they can face the challenges posed. The Anglican General Synod recently debated the issue, based on a new book, Mission Shaped Church published following a working party chaired by Bishop Graham Cray.
As some churches struggle to grow they will welcome Emerging Church thinking with open arms. But what the Movement currently lacks are enough ‘success stories’ of such magnitude that the undecided will realise there is something in it. And it is such stories that will more importantly be an indication that God may be in it. If the jury is currently out, it is definitely worth sifting the evidence. This one won’t go away.