Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

But what I really want to know is how to get to heaven...

I have been reading a book by Cory Labanow called Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church (Ashgate, 2009) for the purpose of writing a review for the Evangelical Quarterly. The book is an ethnographical study of a rather poorly camouflaged Vineyard congregation in the UK that has expressly associated itself with the ‘emerging church’ movement. The research was done in 2003-04, and in the fast-moving world of contemporary ecclesiology it is likely that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then for all concerned. But it is an interesting example of how such formal academic work might cast light on the dilemma of the emerging church and its difficult relationship with modern evangelicalism.

Following my post on the gospel in the New Testament a particular section caught my eye. Labanow describes a meeting of Journey, the church’s ‘version of a theological roundtable’, that he attended. The pastor (pseudonymously renamed Matt Lawton) was trying to explain a ‘nonfoundationalist’ hermeneutic: modernism regards knowledge as a stack of bricks; postmodern epistemology is pluralistic, recognizing that if you place a can of snack food in the middle of a circle of people, they will all ‘describe it slightly differently from their various viewpoints’ (105). But according to Labanow, what people present at the meeting really wanted (having renamed the church Jacobsfield Vineyard, he calls its members ‘JVers’) was some clarification of the ‘criteria for being a Christian as a means to get into heaven and avoid hell’.

For JVers, the immediate implication for altering one’s view on Christian truth directly related to the entrance requirements for entering heaven. Essentially, “being a Christian” for many JVers was something to be obtained, maintained, and then enjoyed when one enters the afterlife. This sentiment, confirmed by findings elsewhere, stands in contrast to the fact that not once in the fieldwork period did Lawton or any JVer present in a Sunday meeting an invitation to Christianity on the basis of an afterlife in heaven. Since such a large number of JVers passionately guarded this view of the Christian life, it could be said that even if commonly held assumptions are not regularly articulated publicly, they are still likely to be existent and internally operative. JVers seemed unable or unwilling to call such a central interpretation into question, pointing to the challenging duty of critiquing one’s religious parentage without being severed from it.

This is a fascinating observation. It highlights two critical facts: first, that the emerging church in its current form (and I doubt this has changed greatly over the last 6 or 7 years) is still at its heart reluctant to let go of its evangelical heritage and an understanding of the gospel construed in predominantly personal terms; and secondly, that this situation is unlikely to change until emerging theologies tell a story about the gospel that has the biblical, prophetic and ‘evangelical’ power to displace the old formula in the imaginations of believers.