What do people in the emerging church want? This is a question that is being posed increasingly in one form or another by academics, critics of the emerging church, and people who are themselves involved with the movement.
Of course, if you ask the people who are involved with the emerging church, you will probably get a unique answer from each person. Some want to reform the church institutions in which they were raised. Others think those institutions are beyond reform and they should be ignored or eliminated altogether.
Some want to shift the focus of Christianity from individual fulfilment and happiness to a grittier, more realistic engagement with people around them, the ‘Other’ of Kester Brewin’s latest book.
Critics of the emerging church argue that in the end it will be nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of religious history, footnoted as an interesting reform movement that ultimately failed to transform or supersede the religious institutions of its day.
Brewin has been responding to this idea in a series of blog posts in which he asks if people involved in the movement in Britain have recently been ‘retreating’ to the religious institutions they had once abandoned.
This is a crucial discussion, because the ability of the emerging church to offer a distinct interpretation of the Christian story – one that resonates in a Western context in which the churches have too often been captive to capitalism and political power holders – will depend on its ability to either resist institutionalisation, or hold relationships with religious institutions in creative tension.
Brewin puts it this way when he characterises the actions of some pre-existing Christian institutions,
My concern is that this could be a political move on the part of the powerful: they can’t afford for a generation to up sticks and leave, so they find new ways to hold on to them, offering certain compromises in the knowledge that once they’re ‘in’ they can be ‘in-stitutionalised’ – made part of the firm.
In a recent blog post, Peter Rollins offers some reflections on a version of the ‘what does the emerging church want?’ question. Rollins was asked ‘what the goal’ of his work was. In this post, Rollins writes about replacing the ‘good news’ that many churches have offered people – a shallow form of individual happiness with a darker vision,
Rather the good news comes down to offering people the possibility of facing up to their suffering and darkness and sharing them with others in some (often ritualistic) way. The good news is found in offering those present the space to face their anxieties (rather than repressing them or falling into despair) and develop the courage to embrace them. This of course is not something that brings in the masses. Stadiums are more often filled by smiling men in good suits offering a lot more (in exchange for a little cash).
With this darker version of the ‘good news,’ I think Rollins articulates something that is crucial – but that can be overlooked – about the emerging church.
Most people who are involved with it will not be quick to define religious ‘success’ in the same ways that the institutionalised churches of the West define success: in conformity to beliefs, church attendance, building programmes, and so on.
But if emergent Christians are ‘retreating’ to institutions, as Brewin claims, I think it is more interesting to ask:
Are they bringing Rollins’ rather dark gospel with them? And if so, how will the institutional churches handle it?
(Photo sourced on Kester Brewin’s blog)