Last week as the conference, ‘Re-emergence: Christianity and the Event of God,’ was coming to a close, we were shaken out of our conversations as the fire alarms in the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, reverberated throughout the building.
It wasn’t a fire. The alarms had been set off by the dismantling of a Light Installation by Beyond Church from Brighton. The installation had involved the use of a smoke machine, which our alarms took every bit as seriously as real smoke.
In a blog post last week about the launch of the conference and the Insurrection Tour, I described the image of a burning church that was projected onto the back wall in a basement room of McHugh’s Bar. I referred to this as symbolising old church institutions burning to the ground.
So even as my work colleagues turned off the alarms to allow the smoke to clear, I thought the alarms were quite appropriate at some strange symbolic or metaphysical level: yes, the tired old church institutions are burning, and there are even alarm bells going off.
But is there anyone out there reforming or replacing our Christian institutions?
During one of her keynote addresses at the conference, Phyllis Tickle referred to ‘De-institutionalised Christianity.’
This term immediately struck me, because I do not think that Tickle used it in her book, The Great Emergence.
I first heard the term used in a self-conscious and consistent way in 2007 when I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork on a charismatic Christian congregation, Mount Pleasant Community Church (MPCC), in Harare, Zimbabwe. The people there had chosen the term ‘de-institutionalisation’ to describe the process their congregation was going through.
They told me that – prompted by the Holy Spirit – they had come to believe that they were relying too much on the ‘structures’ of their congregation, including organised activities. They had made radical changes in the way their prayer meetings and worship services were conducted, with the leadership deliberately stepping back in favour of a ‘priesthood of all believers.’
These people in Harare thought that getting rid of the unnecessary structures, and the endless rounds of meetings, had made them freer to go out in society and do the sort of things that Jesus intended – caring for the poor, the orphans, the widows – of which there are plenty in Zimbabwe.
At the time, the processes that MPCC were going through reminded me of processes I had observed in Belfast, in the emerging church group Ikon. Of course, MPCC’s and Ikon’s theological ideas and ritualistic practices are very different. But I’ve written an academic article comparing sociological processes within MPCC and Ikon, which is published this month in the journal Ethnopolitics.
So I wasn’t really surprised when I heard Tickle use the term ‘de-institutionalisation.’ It assured me that there are others out there who recognise that the dismantling of old structures is taking place in Christianity globally, not just in the post-modern West.
And it reminded me that Christians all over the world could fruitfully learn from each other as we venture into what is really an unknown era.
Perhaps MPCC and Ikon provide us with glimpses of what de-institutionalised, or you might call it ‘religion-less,’ Christianity could look like.
- These observations feed into important questions that were raised at the conference:
- What kind of relationships will de-institutionalised expressions of Christianity have with the older, institutional churches?
- Will they be mutually enriching relationships, or will there be tension and conflict?
- Will de-institutionalised and institutionalised forms of Christianity be like ships passing in the night, or can they genuinely learn from each other?
Tickle warned that those of us who call ourselves Christians today will be judged by our daughters and sons in regard to how we answer these questions. Will they be able to look back and say our relationships were characterised by love and compassion, or will they shake their heads in despair at the way we handled difference?
(Photo: plant life growing from stony ground in Matopos, Zimbabwe. Posted on flickr, by Life of Johan)