3.04.2006

"Emerging" is more than skin deep

One of the points that Karen Ward of Church of the Apostles made clear at our recent learning party is that the "emerging church" is not just a worship style. She uses "ethos" to describe the distinctive spirit of Apostles Church. Karen notes that ethos is more than superficial style, more than the "coffee, candles and cool video" that many critics see as the totality of the church that is emerging. A community's ethos includes its shared values, how authority and leadership are defined, how it views Scripture and pastoral roles and the priesthood of all believers. Dictionary.com defines it this way:
e·thos Audio pronunciation of "ethos" (Pronunciation Key (ths)
n. The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement...
There are some common threads of a hypothetical "emerging ethos" that would resonate with some -- but not all -- people and churches that would use the "emerging" label: a high value on true community rather than the "social club" model that plagues some churches; a commitment to what Karen calls "deep ecclesiology," drawing from the well of Christian history and tradition rather than just one denomination's story; a focus on living the way of Jesus out in daily life and social action, rather than just going to church on Sunday. Some would argue with one of these points, others will suggest additional points. That's why the church that is emerging is a conversation, not a denomination. But this high-level emerging ethos isn't really the point.

The point, Karen said, is "radical contextualization." It's not so much about how the "emerging ethos" and the "traditional church ethos" collide and resonate. What's important is that the Christian community is true to the "disposition, character and fundamental values peculiar to" its members. That doesn't mean that the Gospel conforms to people's preconceptions, but that the community expresses the dreams, gifts, and longings of its people. If the community has an egalitarian view of leadership, for example, its structure will look different than the classic church hierarchy. An artistic community will nurture and encourage the gifts its artists and poets and musicians bring. (Karen noted how Apostles' musicians created a space and even composed a piece to allow one member's gift of accordion playing to be lifted up.) A community responding to Jesus' social action will make that an integral part of its life. Part of contextualization is being open to the interplay of the Gospel, the people and the Spirit's leading.

I heard Doug Pagitt of Solomon's Porch describe this well. He said that when people become part of the the community their gifts, their aspirations, their issues become part of the community as well -- and as a result the community is different. In other words, the church and the community have roles in shaping each other. How different from the old model of an immutable church whose role is to shape its members?

Karen was asked a question I receive often: Can existing churches emerge? Can this ethos flourish within the church or must it go outside (or underground)? Specifically, she was asked if it would be appropriate to add an "emerging" service to an existing church.

This gets to the heart of the matter: Is "emerging" a skin we can apply to the same underlying church, like changing the look but not the functionality of software, or is it an "ethos" that defines how we are the church? Karen wisely noted that any configuration is possible. UK churches have long housed several mainly autonomous communities under one roof; that's how many of the alt.worship communities that have flourished in the UK exist. Youth churches have started in evangelical and mainline churches, often viewed as a feeder into the "regular" church, though this has been less effective than hoped for because people with a truly postmodern ethos don't fit real well in the "regular" service.

Her bottom line was this: If you want to connect with postmodern emergents, take their ethos seriously. There is not a formula -- some will be more artistic, some more service oriented, some more or less comfortable with the existing church structure. But if you empower a group to discover its ethos as a worshipping community, let them stay at it. Don't bait and switch them into the "regular" environment, and don't try to snap all the regular rules and expectations onto the new group as a means of control, because they won't stay around.

If people become engaged with the faith in an emerging fashion, something powerful will be unleashed, and you probably can't control it. There will eventually be tension -- over styles, over times, over space, over control issues -- so let it be creative tension that sets the Spirit in motion, rather than the destructive anxiety that divides so many congregation and can kill great ideas for fresh expressions of the church.

I appreciate Karen's focus on the ethos of the community. All communities have their own ethos, and the church is no exception. We have congregations in our ELCA tribe that are very formal and stiff, and ones that are more flexible and user-friendly. We have congregations that are perceived by newcomers as warm, cold and suffocating. We have those that idolize hierarchy and those that deal with it. Those that embrace experimentation and those that have trouble with seasonal variations to the liturgy.

The postmodern shift, she pointed out, provides new challenges. The openness to many points of view to tell the whole story, distrust of experts and instititions, multimedia and multisensory ways of learning, acceptance of different intelligences and learning styles, and the flattening of hierarchies are difficult to assimilate. But we must understand that these are not merely styles adopted by postmoderns that they can be cured of by a big enough dose of modernism. This is part of the ethos of the emerging culture -- perhaps the defining aspect of which is that there is no one emerging culture -- that people will not check at the door of church, any more than they do at the door of the office or the mall or the voting booth. To engage postmoderns we must accept their ethos and accord it the deference we give our own and, as church planter Rachelle Mee-Chapman has said, "dance in the overlap."

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