What’s Appealing about the Emerging Church?

crossIn a comment on my recent review of Letters to a Future Church, Ray Beere writes:

Interesting review. You said that you sympathise with the emerging church. What is it that you find appealing in this movement? Seeking answers.

In the spirit of seeking to provide some insight on Ray’s question, I’ve identified three aspects of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), as I understand it, which appeal to me.

Before launching in to those three aspects, I’ll offer you a shorthand description of the ECM. It’s a current working description Gerardo Marti and I are using in our forthcoming book, The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2013):

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is a self-classified, voluntary, and largely reactive religious movement that strives to achieve social relevance and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in Conservative, Evangelical Christianity.

We also think that, in contrast to what many in the ECM would call ‘institutional’ Christianity, the ECM self-consciously encourages people to live their truest lives out in the everyday world rather than escaping within familiar rituals of church life.

What emerging Christians might call living out their ‘truest lives’ is similar to what James Bielo calls seeking ‘authenticity’ in his book Emerging Evangelicals. The ECM’s critique of ‘institutional’ Christianity also resonates with my recent post on the ‘Decline in Trust in Religious Institutions.’

What’s Appealing about the Emerging Church?

[Please keep in mind that these three aspects are what appeal to me personally; identifying aspects of personal appeal is something quite different from the work Gerardo Marti and I are doing for our sociological analysis of the ECM.]

The ECM’s Emphasis on Living Out Christianity

I like the ECM’s emphasis on what one person I interviewed about the ECM called ‘following Jesus in the real world.’ Like many who have a background in evangelical Protestantism, the message I often got at church was that it was more important to be inside the church (praying, worshipping, listening, etc) than outside it, living among people who are different from you or with whom you probably don’t always agree.

The tagline of this blog, Building a Church Without Walls, is inspired by this idea of living your faith outside the walls of the church.

I’m not saying that it’s not important to go to church. I’m just saying that it’s not the be-all and end-all measurement that some churches seem to make it out to be. I think some of the sub-movements that are part of the ECM, like new monasticism, offer inspiring models of how to live like Christians in the ‘real world.’

The ECM’s Critique of ‘Belief’

I think a lot of evangelical churches spend an inordinate amount of time trying discover Truth (yes, that’s Truth with BIG T), the assumption being that if you know the Truth, you’re covered – you are right and you’ve got your ticket to heaven punched.

Many in the ECM view truth (yes, with a small t) as something that is embodied and lived out, not a set of intellectual beliefs. And yes, critics of the ECM try and reduce this stance to lazy, post-modern relativism. But I think the ECM is on to something, and that the implications of this for Christian living are actually terrifying.

To illustrate this, I reproduce my discussion of Peter Rollins’ contribution to Letters to a Future Church:

[Rollins] acknowledges that Christians can identify many problems in their church and their world. But he says that Christians often address the symptoms rather than the underlying problems, privileging discovering right ‘belief’ over engaging in ethical practices (p. 65-67):

Instead of looking “within” in order to find out what you really believe, what if what you believe is hidden in your very material reality and in what it produces? We must remember that the “heart” in the biblical context does not relate to the inner life but rather to the individual in his or her being as a whole.

… It is not enough for you to say that you are falling short of your beliefs, for this very confession plays into the idea that there is a difference between your various beliefs and your actions. Rather, if you will permit, I ask you to remember the radical Christian insight that one’s actions reflect one’s beliefs. That you cannot say that you believe in God if you do not commit yourself to what Kierkegaard referred to as the work of love.

Rollins concludes with some questions (p. 67):

What would it take for you to move beyond your obsession with right belief and personal piety so as to become a force of real change in the world? What would it take … ?

The ECM’s Re-Working of Religious Institutions

Like many Christians in the West, I am disillusioned by the performance of our religious institutions in all manner of areas, ranging from:

  • the Catholic cover-up of sexual abuse,
  • to the often manipulative politics of the Christian Right in the US,
  • to the cringe-worthy evangelistic techniques of American suburban megachurches,
  • to the internal institutional structures in many denominations that favour keeping some groups and perspective in power over others.

I could go on.

So I appreciate the ECM’s critique of contemporary religious institutions, though as Cary Gibson has reminded me, one has to be careful when describing the ECM’s critique of and relationship with ‘institutional’ churches.

I am also extremely curious about the institutions which the ECM is developing, sometimes as a counter to existing denominational institutions, sometimes within denominational institutions. I appreciate how some ECM institutions aim for a ‘flat,’ networked leadership style (see Tony Jones on this), even if this is not always achieved.

I think a church with that kind of leadership could be pretty empowering; strong yet nimble enough to respond to the needs of our world. Tough to achieve though.

For More Reflections …

Other resources that are helpful for understanding what I find appealing about the ECM can be found in a series of posts I wrote last year in response to query from Ben Aldous, a master’s student at Redcliffe College and the Reverend in charge of the Mission Portfolio at St Martin’s Church in Durban, South Africa.

Aldous asked me to respond to a few questions for the dissertation he is writing entitled, ‘Roots, Shoots and Fruits: Towards an assessment of the work of Peter Rollins.’

He asked for ‘some comments that would be used only in my paper (which is unlikely to be published)’ around four questions:

  1. What troubles you most about Rollins’ work or ideas?
  2. What do you find most liberating or freeing about his writing/thoughts?
  3. How much do you identify with his work personally?
  4. Please comment on negative or positive missiological concerns that you feel Rollins provokes. What do you make of Rollins’ typical deconstructive notion that, ‘evangelism should be a powerless approach that breaks down the them and us thus creating space to become re-evangelised.’

(Photo sourced on flickr, by arbyreed)

2 thoughts on “What’s Appealing about the Emerging Church?”

  1. Thank you Gladys for your extensive comments and links. I hope many others read this. The quotes from Rollins were enlightening and helpful. Your layout and helpfulness in your articles are exemplary and I was drawn to a number of your blogs, Especially on Zimbabwe as I had spent some time there. All the best in your future work and ministry. May our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit continue to guide you into all truth to His glory.

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