Emerging church -- defined?

I've started reading "Emerging Churches" by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. I've read a number of books on emerging-missional church (ht:TSK), and this one is different. Gibbs and Bolger teach at Fuller Seminary, and the book is the result of five years of research and interviews with leaders who are building emerging communities. Many books offer one person's perspective, one community's history. And because the journeys that are emerging are particular to the people and places involved, they're extremely helpful. They give the reader a window into a community and allow us to draw what lessons we can from the experience.

"Emerging Churches" is helpful at giving an overview of the conversation -- "movement" is too strong a term, they suggest -- and identifying themes across the broad spectrum of church expressions that might be called emerging-missional. At the outset, they identify three overarching themes seen in such communities: They identify with the way of Jesus, transform the secular space (rather than draw people from secular space into 'church'), and live in community. After examining these practices they offer this basic definition of "emerging churches":
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.
They offer nine marks or "core practices" of emerging churches, listed below (with helpful annotation from The Blind Beggar):
  1. Identifying with Jesus (and his way of life)
  2. Transforming secular space (overcoming the secular/sacred split)
  3. Living as community (not strangers in proximity at a church service)
  4. Welcoming the stranger (radical and gentle hospitality that is inclusive)
  5. Serving with generosity (not serving the institution called “church,” but people)
  6. Participating as producers (not widgets in the church program)
  7. Creating as created beings
  8. Leading as a body (beyond control and the CEO model of leadership)
  9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities
I find this list really useful because it gets beyond the whole "candles, coffee and cool video" mindset that thinks "emerging" is a style of worship. There certainly are communities that are adopting style as a way of drawing missing generations into church. But that approach "misunderestimates" (ht:W) the magnitude of the postmodern shift that is going on. What they are pointing to here is a radically different way of thinking of ourselves as followers of Jesus and, then, of being his body that doesn't fit will with our prevailing modern, Christendom, institutional view.

Gibbs and Bolger's list helps because it is style-independent. It's about more holistic Christian practices -- taking Jesus seriously as a teacher, connecting to and serving the ordinary world (not just the church institution), participating meaningfully (the work of the people) and reorienting the nature of leadership -- that could (in theory at least) work in almost any style or polity open to reform for the sake of the Gospel. Not that it isn't a challenging list, and that implementing it isn't hard work -- but it will be hard work in a new community or in an existing congregation.

Their analysis is helpful on a couple of points. They note that the period of deconstruction that often begins an individual's or community's exploration is a necessary part of the journey and is (when it is healthy) deconstruction leading to reconstruction. The caution to us is not to be so anxious or threatened by deconstruction, but to give it time and see where it leads -- to discern the spirits behind it.

The practices all seem to flow out of the first one, identifying with Jesus. Jesus' ministry was one of radical inclusivity that pretty much ignored the religious authorities and transformed people where they were, in the midst of life. His band of disciples modeled an interdependent community that was continued by the earliest church. Serving the least of these was key, and converts were called immediately to significant roles in the kingdom, not pew-warming (think of St. Paul). Jesus' leadership was remarkably interpersonal and non-hierarchical, considering what he could have done with his authority (and in fact critiqued the existing hierarchy). And he certainly taught a new spirituality deeply grounded in Torah and tradition.

Churches based on these nine marks might actually look more like those described in Acts and the epistles than the institution we've come to know and love.

1 comment:

Andy Rowell said...

Good little review. You've summarized the basics well.