Category: emerging church

What happened to the emerging church?

Are you hearing less about the emerging church in the last couple of years? Just as it came on the radar of mainstream evangelical churchgoers? That’s my impression, but then I stopped looking so much. Great post written over a year ago offering an explanation of what the movement is becoming –
I love Mark Sayers’ analysis and his willingness to categorize.

Yoder on church growth, the Great Commission and mission

I knew that Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder’s “Baptism and the new humanity” chapter of Body Politics had key things to say about my previous post concerning the shape of the church and anabaptist versus emerging church ecclesiology – but I forgot how many related issues this chapter speaks to. I went back and read some of it this morning, actually as research for my new novel (The Fur 2! I was going to put some of these ideas in the mouth of Stephen the preacher), but I ended up not getting any writing done because he gave me so much to think about.
First, this quote:
For still others, the “mission of the church” should be understood much more realistically… as planting viable church communities in every culture, especially where there has been none before. What then if such planting and growth could be facilitated by accepting ethnic isolation and defensiveness because in certain homogenous cultures people will not forsake their own cultural style? That price in terms of ethical compromise would be worth paying for the sake of church growth. (37)
That sums up an anabaptist critique of church growth and emerging church very well. Yoder goes on to ask questions about the Great Commission.

The Book of Acts does not report that the apostles remembered the so-called “Great Commission” and conscientiously set about obeying it. Nor do we see them thinking about the lost status of individuals whom they had not reached. The event of ingathering came first. Only later did the Twelve think about it. Only still later did they “send” someone. The theology to explain the rightness of the ingathering was imposed by the events, which it explained after the fact. The Twelve did not set out to obey the Great Commission; they talked about the risen Lord and they broke bread together in their homes and thus they found themselves together first with Hellenized Jews and then even with Gentiles… The action of mission was prior to theory about it.

This observation might provide some guidance within the current lively debates about “church growth” and cultural homogeneity… If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.

– Body Politics p. 37-38

I’ve been worried about how the Great Commission is used, especially by church growth people. WA Baptists favourite John Kaiser starts with the Great Commission and then asks how we can most efficiently do it. The assumption is that we know what the Great Commission means. Yoder drops a couple of hints that it doesn’t mean what we think it means. He doesn’t seem to think it’s as important as church growth people make it either. I want to know more about his argument here, because as the last words of Jesus in Matthew at least, and as a command, it is of course important. But here’s Yoder’s footnote on it:

For two centuries the term ‘Great Commission’ has been the code label for Matthew 28:20 ‘Make disciples of all nations, as you go, baptizing them, teaching them…’ This was understood as the most specific statement of the missionary imperative the church was called to obey. In the beginning of the modern missionary movement, there were debates about whether this command was still binding, or whether perhaps the apostles had already done it. Often the first words “Go ye” were accentuated, although in the Greek that is said adverbially, as it is rendered above: “As you go…” (p. 85)

I think Yoder would say – and I say – it is still binding. As usual, he gives us a history of an idea as a first step, and expects us to do the work from there. In calling it the Great Commission, we bring a whole set of ideas to the command. Translated as he has done it here, it has a different sense – ‘as you go’.

It seems to be a feature of a lot of evangelicalism to accept a certain sense of the Great Commission, with distinctives coming out of the best way to do it. Here’s some rough stereotypes:

1. Sydney Anglicans – personal evangelism using doctrinally correct resources (2 ways to live)

2. Church Growth – seeker sensitive mega-churches using research about what people groups are looking for. (This has probably moved on a bit)

3. Emerging missional church – incarnational mission to particular people groups – ie small church expressions among subcultures.

To differing extents, all three of these streams would see the command as being filled in individual conversions. In their classical expressions, none of them would see the shape of the church, the breaking down of emnity between races and classes and genders, as a part of the good news. But in all of them, there’s people willing to listen to the idea!


Why the church must be attractional: an Anabaptist critique of the emerging missional church via Milbank

A few weeks ago, Hamo wrote an interesting post called ‘Why the missional incarnational church is screwed’. He quoted at length from the postliberal theologian John Milbank:

The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location.

St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se.

One can’t set up a church in a cafe amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’.”

– From ‘Stale Expressions: the Management-Shaped Church’, Studies in Christian Ethics, April 2008 by John Milbank.

It would be wrong to focus on Milbank’s defence of the parish and how admittedly un-diverse many parishes are, rather than his critique of emerging-missional ecclesiology. I’m no great fan of the parish, but it’s these words and talking to Ian Packer while he was over that have helped consolidate my points of difference with EMC ecclesiology. As much as great things are happening with the EMC, I think it would be a mistake for me to lose the distinctive Anabaptist ecclesiology that I had clear in my head for a while and which Milbank has helped me begin to recover.

I need to re-articulate the fundamental point of disagreement between an anabaptist ecclesiology and the agenda laid out by Frost and Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come.

As much as EMC criticisms of church culture are valid, an anabaptist ecclesiology maintains that the church must be attractional. We mustn’t think the two choices are between ‘mega-church attractional beasts’ and ‘incarnational missional communities’. There is a third way…

The church is a counter-cultural community, a city on a hill embodying the gospel, a people called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately. It calls people into a new humanity living in the kingdom of God. It calls people to be baptised into this new humanity where their primary identity is no longer their subculture – whether that be skater, biker, twentysomething, mortgage belter, activist, gay, professional or artist (or Jew, Greek, slave, master, male, female) – but where their identity is in Christ.

The diversity of the church is part of the good news! It announces to the world that the old barriers have been broken down, the emnity between peoples has been overcome. Baptising subcultures as ‘churches’ misses this good news. It may even risk retaining an individualistic evangelical idea of what the good news is: ‘personal salvation’.

Where can this church be found?

It’s hard to find, and that’s why we need to articulate the hope, pray for it, and do what we can in the power of the Spirit to practice it.

For me, right now, it is found in Network Vineyard Church. Maybe part of my call is to help the church, right where I am, discover its call to diversity and to the body-life of the kingdom. I want people to know that when they break out of their comfort zone and reach across culture in church, they are partaking in the good news. It starts in small ways. It starts with who you talk to in the coffee break. It leads to you becoming family with people you wouldn’t otherwise associate with: different classes, different races, different outlooks.

Tom Sine stirs things up in Perth

Anabaptistish-futurologist-populariser of kingdom ideas Tom Sine was in Perth last week, and Chris Summerfield has written a thoughtful and interesting post thinking through the consequences.

In Tom talking up the new conspirators (emerging, missional, multicultural, monastic communities), it brought up for me a struggle over the last few months against feeling left behind. For me, I have fought against a sense of having tried and failed, and fearing I have sold out. Or that’s what I was feeling, but I’ve decided to stop it. I’m content doing unglamorous things for God at the moment. It’s important to give up the need to be on the cutting edge. It’s important to give up the need to feel important. I defy the cult of celebrity and success which infects even Christianity and even ‘new conspirators’.

But I was excited by Tom’s talks in several ways. I like his emphasis on the possibilities for transforming our everyday life in creative ways to make it look more like kingdom life. I like his emphasis on hospitality and celebration, and I need to go watch Babette’s Feast now, which he mentioned several times as an example of what he’s talking about.

I may have a whole mindshift going on at the moment, but I’ll have to wait till I’ve got some time to think it through AND write about it.

Book review – Evaluating the church growth movement : 5 views

This is an important book for me to have read. Throughout the book, several references are made to common misunderstandings of the church growth movement. The problem is that people like me associate it with megachurches and seeker-sensitive services and don’t know the historical roots.

This book starts with a good historical sketch to correct such misunderstandings. The movement has its roots, as you may know, in the missiology of Donald McGavran (1897-1990), a Disciples of Christ missionary in India. (I’m surprised to learn that the founder was a Restorationist when the result today is nothing like the primitive church!)

He seemed to be reacting against the social gospel priority and believed that the main business of mission was to ‘save the lost’. (Helping them in their poverty and suffering etc was something of a second priority, which is one of many problems I think I have with McGavran.)

To maximise conversions, he investigated which churches grew and why. He then stated principles from these of how to reach people in a particular culture.

For him, discipleship meant simply conversion; ‘perfecting’ had the sense of growing in Christ and it was another second priority for him – and another point on which I strongly disagree with him. It’s interesting to note that his sense of the word ‘discipleship’ is opposite to the way it’s used in Anabaptist circles, where it is code for much more than conversion – the whole life process of bringing everything under Christ.

After the historical sketch, this book brings together five different perspectives on church growth – two of them very sympathetic, one of them ‘reformist’ and two of them critical. I have a lot in common with the two critics – Howard Snyder, from a ‘renewal’ perspective (I think his ecclesiology is excellent) and Craig Van Gelder using Lesslie Newbigin’s work for a ‘gospel and culture’ perspective.

But what I am shocked to realise is that some of the other movements that I sympathise with actually have roots or alliances in the church growth movement.

1. Vineyard movement – John Wimber came out of these circles and his friend Peter Wagner was McGavran’s successor as spokesman for the movement.

2. New house church movement – the saturation church planting and similar stuff in the ministry of Wolfgang Simson and Tony and Felicity Dale seems to use some of the same language and theology of the movement, even if it is mostly a reaction against the dominant ecclesiology of the megachurch side of it. They may be just as much in the McGavran tradition as the megachurches.

3. Emerging missional church – for example, as represented by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in Australia. I’ve just picked up my copy of Shaping of Things To Come, and there’s a quote on the back from Eddie Gibbs – Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth. And then there’s the section on the homogeneous unit principle p. 52, taken straight from McGavran. Target a people group, you could put it as. (Reading back over it – and remembering how disappointed I was when I first read it – I am pleasantly surprised to see that they do regard heterogenous churches that bring together Jew and Greek so to speak, are the ultimate aim. HUP is just a missional strategy. So maybe emerging missional church has taken the best part of the church growth movement.)

The sort of criticisms that emerge of the movement are expected ones that I agree with. Most importantly, is an emphasis on numbers when numbers in the New Testament are a side effect of faithfulness and power in the Holy Spirit.

Significant also is the pragmatism that looks to ‘what works’ and then tries to justify it with Scripture.

I think I’m going to come away from this book with a better understanding of what’s going on in evangelicalism today.