Straws in the wind: why the emerging church still matters

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Brian LePort (Near Emmaus) suggests, not unreasonably, that the more pertinent question is not whether the emergent church has a problem with the doctrine of a final judgment (see previous post) but whether the emergent church still exists. I have to say, I did wonder whether I should add a qualification to the effect that the debate over emerging epistemology, eschatology, etc., now seems rather passé. There was a flurry of obituaries a few months back (eg., Michael Patton) lamenting the death of the emerging church – and my loss of interest or confidence in the Open Source Theology model had a lot to do with a subconscious realization that the spirit of postmodern enquiry driving it had rather fizzled out.

I have no idea really whether brand Emergent still has a viable market presence, and in any case, the perspective from Europe on the emerging phenomenon has always been rather different. In Europe the emerging movement was largely a reaction to the perceived failure and irrelevance of modern churches; in the US it was largely a reaction to the success (and accompanying hubris and complacency) of modern churches.

But my argument would be that none of the particular voices, none of the particular forms or expressions of church that have emerged and perhaps submerged over the last ten years, offers either a definitive critique of the modern church or a definitive new paradigm for the future. They are at most straws in a slow but persistent wind, and the question then is whether a good case can be made for thinking that a deep transformation is underway that can legitimately be characterized, without hyperbole or vanity, as a shift from modernity to postmodernity, from Reformation to post-Reformation, from imperialism to post-imperialism, from Christendom to post-Christendom.

This remains a very debatable contention, but it seems to me that a number of current developments suggest that these winds of change are real – that the emerging church was not simply out to fool people by throwing the straws in the air to create the illusion of change.

  • The decline of institutionalism and the loyalties that sustain it; the emergence of networks and networked patterns of communication; the democratization of theological conversation, which is what Open Source Theology stood for; a flourishing grassroots ecumenism, and so on.
  • The slowly dawning realization that the church and its peculiar ways of thinking are becoming increasingly relativized and, worse, marginalized by the dominant secular-pluralist culture.
  • A broadening of theological discourse and praxis to include the arts, social justice, environmentalism, etc. I would see this as an attempt to recover the creational dimensions of Christendom by other means.
  • The relevance of the emerging conversation to post-colonial contexts, where the disjuncture between the Western church and the culture upon which it was imposed is much more apparent (I am thinking of movements such as Amahoro Africa).
  • The widely accepted argument about the need to be dynamically and corporately missional in a way that is not restricted to the proclamation of a gospel of personal salvation or oriented merely towards numerical growth.
  • A shift in the broad structuring of theology from traditioned, systematic dogmatism – theology as processed, organized, rationalized, generalized beliefs – towards new perspectives that endeavour to recover the detailed, contingent narrative framework of New Testament thought. The point is not that dogmatism is intrinsically bad and narrative intrinsically good. It is that modern dogmatism now constitutes a theological dead-end, and new perspectives offer a return to origins as a prerequisite for the renewal of Christian thought at all levels.

One of the implications of my analysis of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is that, whether we like it or not, the emergence of European Christendom was a significant and anticipated outcome of the preaching of the gospel or evangel of God’s Son to the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The collapse of European Christendom, therefore – not merely as a social and political phenomenon but as an encompassing worldview – is arguably a matter of massive theological significance for the evangelical church. It does not have to be interpreted as a failure of New Testament theology, but I think we are being compelled to ask, on a number of different levels, what sort of missional, ecclesiological and theological re-alignment is entailed in the social and intellectual displacement of Christianity.

There are substantial benefits to be had from this theological perspective – from confining ourselves to the pressing historical horizons of the early church. First, it allows us to make constructive sense of 1700 years of Euro-centric church history. Secondly, it helps to relativize and correct the presumption of modern evangelicalism that it is the only part of the historic church since the fourth century really to have understood the gospel. Thirdly, it provides us with a cogent and intrinsically biblical framework within which to renew the identity and purpose of the church.

The fundamental reform needed, I would suggest, theologically speaking, is to grasp the implications of the fact that the gospel, which modern evangelicalism has mis-appropriated for itself, was in the first place ‘political’ rather than ‘personal’: it had to do with the status of Israel and Israel’s God amongst the nations. Of course, that had and still has implications for individuals; but modern evangelicalism, in my view, will not have the theological resources or outlook to respond to the current crisis until its gets its priorities right and learns to tell the story of Jesus and the people of God on this grand, historical scale.

The emerging church, in its often short-sighted and muddled way, has helped to highlight the limitations of a narrow evangelicalism, and has provided an invaluable testing ground for alternative ways of existing. But it is probably not the emerging church, as such, as we have come to know it, that will be determinative in the long run. The issue will be how the church on a much broader basis and over a much longer period of time willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, adapts to the distintegration of Western Christendom.

I think that your observations are much more right than wrong on this, most of my reservations coming on the difficulty of telling the future.  On my side of the Atlantic there is talk of church becoming "missional" and I would be interested to hear if Europe has similar dialogue.

For a few years I have been wondering if emergent as a branding was actually going somewhere, and I don't see how it is.  I still find it somewhat ironic that the emergent church will every now and then have to debate on whether or not a particular preacher or theologian is "emergent."

But you are correct in saying that the institutional church must change, that there is a sweeping movement of Pentecost around the globe that is not waiting for western evangelicals to get it right.  It will require that a dramatic shift in the way church is conceived, and it will fuse together various aspects of culture in ways previously unimagined.  The world appears to be at a juncture of significant change for the people of God.

@Michael Thompson:

Others may see it differently, but I would have thought that what it means to be ‘missional’ is the main conversation happening in the churches in Europe.

I agree with you about the global significance of Pentecostalism. I admit to having dismissed it as being missionally and theologically too restrictive, but I’m beginning to wonder if that is fair. Pentecostalism certainly has the potential to drive a sense of missional purpose that is broader than personal salvation, healing and prophecy. Whether it can also accommodate new perspectives in theology, whether it can enter into a more critical theological conversation without losing momentum, is perhaps less clear.

@Andrew Perriman:

dismissed it as being missionally and theologically too restrictive, but I'm beginning to wonder if that is fair

I think many will take a fresh look at Pentecostalism over the next few years, Andrew. Coming from that background, I dismissed Western Pentecostalism but had the opportunity to embrace a form far more influenced by non-Westerners. During the course of my recent sojourn into 'emerging' and 'academic' understanding of Christian spirituality I managed, somehow, to hold all three in some kind of creative tension as I (re)discovered who I was and the nature of the vocation to which I felt called to respond, to in the light of them all. 

Miller and Yamomori (neither Pentecostal, at least one is Presbyterian) have just completed a four year study of 'Global Pentecostalism' ("The new face of social engagement) that examines Pentecostalism's capacity for social transformation. It makes for engaging study, (along with an accompanying DVD) and reminded me afresh of the hope that was imbued in my in my earliest days of Pentecostal discipleship.

One of the factors that is likely to 'slow' Pentecostal engagement in critical theological conversation is essentially its innate missiological perspective. Theological reflection must be seen to be a constructive and helpful contribution to the practical life of the community. It is unlikely, therefore, within the foreseeable future that Pentecostalism will be able  to 'spare' its teachers and 'doctors' from the layers of practical tasks aimed at discipleship and training—so urgently required by its own teeming masses—for theological engagement of the luxurious (ivory tower) kind exercised by those influenced by the western Academy or of the experimental ("Where do we want to go today?") kind exercised by the more glamourous end of the "emerging church" spectrum. 

No doubt there are many within both academy and e/c who do not fit such characterisations. They may well be those who are willing to 'go over' into the geographical realms of majority world Pentecostalism to learn from them about their emerging contextual missiology and to discover (a) what we may learn from them, for employment within our own spheres, (b) how we may serve them in intercultural mutuality.