How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

What does the emerging church stand for?

Tim Leeson has initiated an interesting discussion about what the emerging church really stands for, which I think merits a stab at a more comprehensive and synthesizing response. The book Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger lists nine characteristics of emerging churches: identifying with Jesus, transforming secular space, living as community, welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers, creating as created beings, leading as a body, and merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities. These are mostly practical in their orientation - they have to do with how Christian communities function and express themselves in the world. I imagine that most people who feel that they are part of the emerging church would happily locate themselves within that nexus of practices.

However, they do not attempt to capture - at least, not on the face of it - the serious philosophical and theological displacements that have been largely responsible for the phenomenon of the emerging church; nor do they help us to understand the historical context of its development. For that reason, I’m not sure they really get to the heart of what the emerging church stands for. What I want to outline here, therefore, is a broader set of values, though they may appear rather too condensed, a little idealistic in places, perhaps more prescriptive than descriptive, and may reflect a rather too personal perspective.

One of the questions that was repeatedly asked in the thread was whether the ‘emerging church’ actually stands for anything at all original. At one level, the movement, particularly in its more self-conscious and better organized forms, is a rather limited reaction to what has been perceived as the stifling intellectual and cultural environment of modern evangelicalism. Within that narrative it has proved quite shocking, controversial, and liberating to many. But this in itself does not make the emerging church unique. To others, approaching from different perspectives, much of it will seem depressingly familiar, even trite, a rehash of old debates, and so on.

Taken individually and in isolation from the larger narrative of the modern church, none of the ideals listed here is really exceptional or unique to the movement; certainly none constitutes an absolute departure from what has gone before. But I think it can be argued that we have a distinctive convergence of characteristics, tendencies, preferences, at a critical moment in the history of the church that may prove to have decisive significance for the future of the people of God.

1. The emerging church stands for a renewal of thought and praxis

The emerging church must stand, in the first place, for a far-reaching renewal of Christian faith. It is a response, on the one hand, to cumulative intellectual challenges - the combined impact of both the rational critique of modernism and the irrational critique of postmodernism. It is a response, on the other, to the progressive marginalization of the church, as it loses itself in the social and cultural confusion of postmodernity. In larger historical terms, it can be seen as a response to the long, slow disintegration of Christendom and the mindset that sustained it.

There is undoubtedly an apologetic and missional imperative at work here: How do we effectively communicate the gospel to a postmodern culture? But the real pressure for renewal is coming from inside the church, from people who have become bored with the safe, sterile routines of church life, who are no longer willing to squeeze their minds into the small box of the modern evangelical faith, who struggle to make sense of the moral and intellectual tensions generated by the modern experience of faith, who find in themselves a powerful, seemingly Spirit-driven urge to connect, engage, serve, think, create, question, explore, and frequently transgress the boundaries of their tradition.

2. The emerging church stands for a viable post-Christendom future

The emergent movement is probably not itself the future of the church. Rather, I think, it stands for something that is to come, something beyond itself, other than itself. The real significance of the ‘emerging church’, whatever form it presently takes, however credible, relevant or effective it may appear to be, is prophetic. It highlights the shortcomings of the current dominant modes of being Christian in the world and points forward, by practice and illustration, to a new paradigm. It is necessarily provisional, experimental, subversive, provocative, and very tentative in the way in which it articulates the new. It is not a bad thing, therefore, that the emerging church is slow to reach firm conclusions, that it still defers consensus. All will be revealed in good time. The post-Christendom church, I suspect, will be both more than and less than the emerging church as we know it at the moment.

3. The emerging church stands for a recovery of intellectual and moral integrity

It is part of the emerging church critique of the modern evangelical mindset that it suffers from dogmatic overload. Too many issues are addressed, too many decisions made, too many convictions formulated on the basis of a highly processed, rationalized theological end-product that has lost touch with its biblical, historical, moral, and social-cultural origins. The evangelical mind has become a closed loop. It has evolved into a ‘Second Life’, a vivid, exotic alternative reality, with its own intrinsic plausibility and coherence but only an approximate and in many respects spurious relationship to the real world. The emerging church, therefore, stands for a deconstruction of this alternative virtual reality and a wholesale rethinking of the reasons for asserting a Christian identity in the world.

4. The emerging church stands for a less confident epistemology

The emerging church stands for a less confident - and in that sense postmodern - epistemology, one that recognizes the problematic nature of truth statements, that understands that language is never neutral or innocent, that accommodates diversity of perspective, that appreciates the instabilities of rhetoric, that takes account of the role of context and genre in the construction of meaning, and that is not overly disturbed by contradiction, mystery and doubt. This admission of uncertainty can give the impression of a weakening of faith - and that may sometimes be the case. But in principle, it signals a realignment of faith from mental consent to existential trust.

5. The emerging church stands for a recovery of biblical realism

I hope that the emerging church stands for a renewal of belief and practice that is authentically ‘biblical’ and, indeed, potently ‘evangelical’, that is in legitimate continuity with the agenda of Jesus as it was understood and pursued by the early church. I appreciate danutz’s patient and articulate contributions to this site enormously, but he represents a style of liberalism that has picked some juicy fruit of social justice from the ancient tree of the biblical narrative while at the same time doing its best to chop the tree down. I don’t think that is the way forward for a church that professes to follow Jesus from Nazareth.

Key to the recovery of biblical realism will be the development of a forward-looking rather than backward-looking theology. We think prospectively - and therefore uncertainly - from the narrated humanity of the early community, not retrospectively from our over-developed theological vantage points. The emerging church will give priority to the biblical narrative, recounting it and indwelling it as a formative community epic, with an empathetic imagination, without suppressing its conundra and contradictions. But it will hesitate to translate it into assured, rational, normative categories.

6. The emerging church stands for a recovery of the narrative-historical context of scripture

This means, for example, that the significance of Jesus is drawn primarily from the narrative of ancient Israel, in all its historical, literary and theological complexity, not from the sub-biblical (and arguably gnostic) ‘myth’ of personal salvation that has tended to dominate evangelical preaching and teaching. This is not a matter merely of theological preference. It belongs to a broader recovery of integrity and realism. In this respect, I would hope that the outcome will be not a stripping away of the hard-to-swallow bits of Christianity but a better understanding of how they function contextually and contribute to the continuing effectiveness of the narrative as a whole.

7. The emerging church stands for a contextualized ‘gospel’

The emerging church should profess to be ‘evangelical’, but the word ‘gospel’ cannot be deployed apart from a set of interpretive and grounding contexts: the narrative-historical context of scripture, in which it is the good news of Israel’s redemption and transformation; the corporate context of the church as renewed humanity, an expression of social relations, creativity and ecology; and the eschatological context of a fundamental and persistent hope in the renewal of all creation.

8. The emerging church stands for authentic community

The emerging church is looking for authentic forms of Christian community that are less subject to the formal constraints and structures of modern church life. There is a desire for community to grow and be shaped by the natural dynamics of relationship rather than by superimposed programmes of management and development. This has resulted in a preference for inclusion, a blurring of both sociological and theological boundaries. The preference is, no doubt, in part a reaction against the commercialized pampering of the individual which pervades both modern society and the modern church. But in the background may also be an appreciation of the fact that it is the concrete existence of a community that should be central and determinative for our theology. Biblical theology is, essentially, the story of a people, and our relation to it is primarily one of narrative continuity rather than of doctrinal conformity.

9. The emerging church stands for a renewal of discipleship

The emerging church stands for a renewal of discipleship, an activism in the name of Jesus, a preference for practical and missional expressions of faith over self-absorbed theologizing and the fussy oversight of personal beliefs. Although the lively pragmatism of the movement can easily lead to theological muddle and incoherence and a lack of clarity with regard to moral and spiritual boundaries, the emphasis on discipleship provides an important means of anchoring our more inclusive forms of community in an authentic biblical identity.

10. The emerging church stands for a grassroots theology

The emerging church stands for a way of doing theology, of developing a mindset appropriate to the missional task, that engages the whole community. Open Source Theology represents and supports this sort of approach, as does the recent Wikiklesia publication of the collaborative book Voices of the Virtual World. But more importantly, it is evident in the widespread emergence of localized, commununity based conversations, formal and informal, informed and uninformed.

11. The emerging church stands for a new type of ecumenism

Or in Brian McLaren’s words, a ‘generous orthodoxy’. The emerging church would dearly like to transcend the old dichotomies of conservative and liberal, evangelical and charismatic, reformed and catholic, high and low, public and private, political and pietist, black and white, east and west, north and south, lay and clerical.

12. The emerging church stands for a creational eschatology

The emerging church stands for a theology - and in specific terms an eschatology - that is creational in its scope, that encompasses, both actually and prophetically, social relations, creativity, and the place of humankind in its environment. We look to the final renewal of creation rather than a final departure to heaven. The challenge is to ensure that this more worldly orientation is not construed as a flight from the other narrative that hinges around the redemption and transformation of the community through the faithfulness of Jesus.

13. The emerging church stands for renewal of the imagination

There are two general reasons for the emphasis on imagination and creativity. The first is that the emerging church, dissatisfied with the artistic sterility of much contemporary Christian culture, is seeking to translate a creation-oriented theology into much richer, more vivid, more complex, more playful and adventurous forms of expression, not merely in the arts but across the spectrum of cultural and social activities. The second reason is that the reinvention of church demands the exercise of a radical imagination that will see things differently and conceive new ways of being, doing and expressing.

14. The emerging church stands for blessing

Mission is conceived, in the first place, not as bringing in, as saving the lost, but as mediating, through the communal presence of people of God, the original creational blessing to the nations and cultures of the world. This blessing arises from and is informed by the potential for the renewal of humanity in Christ. It is expressed eschatologically through a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, uncorrupted by wickedness, injustice, suffering and death, with the living God dynamically present in the midst of things.

15. The emerging church stands for public and political relevance

The emerging church stands for public and political relevance, generally under the rubric of the ‘kingdom of God’, though I have some reservations about how this programme connects with the biblical narrative. To my mind, too much of this has been developed on the basis of an outmoded theology, prior to a serious re-examination of the biblical narrative. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that Christian faith is corporate and has implications for political behaviour. The theological challenge will be to show how the themes of gospel and social justice intersect.