Dr John William Drane is a theologian who is probably best known for his two best-selling books on the Bible, Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament. He studied in the University of Aberdeen where he was a student of I. Howard Marshall, and he holds a PhD from the University of Manchester, where his mentor was F. F. Bruce. His doctoral research focused on Gnosticism in relation to early Christian thought and practice.
John is adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches at the University of Manchester in the MA in the emerging church program. He is the former head of practical theology at the University of Aberdeen.
I met John and his wife Olive on their recent trip to Australia early 2014. We made friends immediately and have been communicating across the seas ever since. Drawn by their humour, love for the arts and their sensitive humility, I feel very blessed to have them in my life.
I am very grateful to John for allowing me to post this Editorial that was first published by Routelage in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2006, 3 – 1.
Ten years ago, the term ‘emerging church’ would have been unknown. Today it is impossible to go very far – certainly in the church culture of the UK, USA and Australasia – without encountering both the word and the reality which it describes.
The reason is simple: the Church in these places is in serious decline. Even Christian researchers are suggesting that by 2040 there will be only a residual Christian presence in Britain, and that institutional structures will have imploded and disappeared long before that. Though church attendance is still reasonably healthy in many parts of the USA, recent research documents the growing popularity of new forms of faith activity, such as home churches, marketplace ministries and cyberchurch. The prediction is that even those who follow the teachings of Christ and are committed to regular prayer, Bible reading and spiritual direction will in future be doing so without any formal connection with congregational life.
Running parallel with this is the popularity of a loosely defined ‘spirituality’ against a more institutionally based ‘religion’.3 It is difficult to make specific connections between the rise in popular spirituality and the decline of the Church, but common sense suggests that if those who are intentionally looking for spiritual meaning in life do not expect to find it in the Church, then we have a problem on our hands. Moreover, a much publicised research project carried out by David Hay at the turn of the millennium demonstrated that spiritual experience is apparently not restricted to those with any sort of overt faith commitment, but is widespread within the ‘secular’ population.4
Social scientists offer various explanations of these cultural shifts, but however they are interpreted, Christian leaders face the uncomfortable reality that the inherited patterns of church life no longer have meaning for the majority of Western people. Debates about the legitimacy of change and the form that it might take are increasingly irrelevant, because the church is already changing whether we like it or not.
In my lifetime, it has gone from being a vibrant spiritual community at the centre of civic life to being on the margins, from being an all-age community to being largely the preserve of old people, and from being a place of nurture and spiritual growth for children to being a prison from which they escape as soon as they are old enough to make their own choices (even supposing they have had any connection with it in the first place, which itself is an increasingly unlikely circumstance). There are of course numerous local exceptions, but the future of the institution as a whole is clearly in jeopardy, and this awareness has opened up a space for creative contextualisation of Christian belief within the new cultural matrix. This is the context in which the ‘emerging church’ has come to birth, and in which it must be understood.5
Definitions What then is the ‘emerging church’?
This is difficult to answer with any precision, partly because it is a work in progress, but also because the groups that claim this label are very diverse.
On the one hand, ‘emerging church’ is being used as a shorthand way of describing a genuine concern among leaders of traditional denominations to engage in a meaningful missional way with the changing culture, and as part of that engagement to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the Church as well as about an appropriate contextualisation of Christian faith that will honour the tradition while also making the Gospel accessible to otherwise unchurched people.
This understanding of emerging church is well described by Ben Edson in his account of the missiological thinking behind Sanctus1, which also reflects (and, since it pre- dated it by a year or two, may also have influenced) the thinking behind Mission- Shaped Church, a report presented to the Church of England’s General Synod in February 2004. Not only has this initiated a significant ecclesiological discussion, but within less than a year of its publication the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, in partnership with the Methodist Council, established the Fresh Expressions project with the express purpose of creating new forms of church that will meet these challenges.6 This endeavour is now high on the agenda of every diocese of the Church, and is being watched closely by leaders of other denominations.
There is, however, another image of ‘emerging church’, consisting of Christians who have become angry and disillusioned with their previous experience of church (predominantly at the conservative evangelical, fundamentalist and sometimes charismatic end of the spectrum), and who have established their own faith communities that – far from being accountable to any larger tradition – are fiercely independent, and often highly critical of those who remain within what they regard as the spiritually bankrupt Establishment.
Both forms of ‘emerging church’ are clearly identified in the articles gathered here. It is tempting to distinguish between them in a territorial way, and it is certainly the case that this second type is more typical of ‘emerging churches’ in North America, while the first is more typical of the English scene (and to a lesser extent of Australia and New Zealand). There is some truth in this rough-and-ready distinction, and it is undoubtedly the case that no other denomination in any country has affirmed the need for new ways of being church with the enthusiasm of the Church of England.7 It is therefore almost inevitable that emerging churches in other places will tend to adopt an independent stance.
Free-market Christianity has always been more prominent in America than in Europe, but that is not the whole picture. The lack of (even occasionally opposition to) any active missional engagement with the culture has forced many of their most talented younger leaders out of the mainline denominations, feeling that they had no alternative but to establish new forms of church in partnership with like-minded people. The article by Scott Bader-Saye highlights the diverse realities which are being described as emerging church, and his taxonomy offers a useful way of distinguishing between the various attitudes that are represented.
Those who are already familiar with the subject will also know that even the term itself is contested, with the word ‘emergent’ being preferred by some, though there appears to be little differentiation of meaning between emergent and emerging.
With so much evident diversity, only a brave – or foolish – person would offer any explanation of this situation. Nevertheless, though my own initial thoughts will in due course be superseded (and certainly will not be the whole story), it is worth the effort, if only to try and connect this movement with the existing knowledge of most readers of this international journal, for some of whom the very notion of ‘emerging church’ may be completely new. It seems to me that the emerging church is the heir to two quite discrete streams within recent church history.
One of them is the ecumenical movement, which has played a bigger part in this development than is generally appreciated. The ecumenical instruments of the mid-20th century were modelled on the older patterns of Christendom, but from the start they were forced to operate in a global context, and became aware of the growth of majority-world churches long before most Western Christians had heard of such a thing. By the late 1980s, non-Western forms of Christianity were becoming increasingly influential in international gatherings of bodies such as the World Council of Churches and the World Association of Reformed Churches (not to mention the worldwide Anglican Communion), and though there was a suspicion – occasionally, even fear – of such contextualised theologies and ecclesiologies, there was also a gradual acceptance that this was the trend of the future, as traditional Western churches declined in their own heartlands. Coinciding with this was a growing realisation of the inadequacies of the liberal theological mindset which had hitherto driven the ecumenical agenda.
This not only created a desire to get to grips with the nature of the emerging post-modern culture, but also engendered a new appreciation of the importance of the evangelistic task.8 Though there was little or no collaboration between them, two individuals were particularly significant in this: Raymond Fung, who was Evangelism Secretary at the WCC in the late 1980s and early 1990s,9 and Lesslie Newbigin, bishop of the Church of South India, who on his return to Britain (ostensibly to retire) encountered a post- Christian culture that demanded serious missiological engagement.10 Fung’s genius was to create a theological bridge between the traditional concern of mainline churches for mission as social action and a more overt evangelistic approach that would call people to Christian discipleship, while Newbigin – as an elder statesmen with impeccable ecclesiastical credentials – managed to convince church leaders who might otherwise have been suspicious of anything called ‘evangelism’ that it was possible to call others to faith in Christ without being either personally aggressive or intellectually compromised. Through his Gospel and Our Culture network (which still continues), he created a groundswell of support among British (especially English) church leaders and theologians.
When the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church both designated the 1990s as a Decade of Evangelism (or, for the Catholics, ‘New Evangelisation’), permission was given for a thoroughgoing reassessment of the state of the Church in relation to Western culture. Though this Decade has been derided for its lack of ‘results’ in terms of converts, it created a new environment in which churches were able to be honest about their predicament and start to address the challenges presented by a post-Christian culture. In England, an ecumenical think tank played a significant part in this, initiated in the late 1980s by Dr Donald English, a leading Methodist, and continued under the aegis of the Group for Evangelisation of Churches Together in England,11 while the appointment of some visionary bishops in the Church of England prepared the ground in which the Fresh Expressions initiative could take root. Meanwhile, the growth of other spiritualities, especially paganism and other so-called ‘new age’ worldviews, raised questions that traditional theologians were incapable of addressing, and reinforced the view that, if there is to be a Christian future, believers must find new ways of expressing faith and being church.
Meanwhile, in conservative evangelical circles a significant trend was moving in the opposite direction. If some Christians in the mainline were finding a renewed confidence in their faith, many who had been raised in an evangelical environment began to question it.
In some ways, these churches had been more aware of cultural change, and more open to experimentation in relation to liturgy and worship. The Jesus people of the 1960s emanated from this ecclesiastical stable, as also did the numerous New Church (‘house church’) streams that grew during the 1960s and 1970s in the UK. Meanwhile, the charismatic movement tended to find most acceptance among these same groups. By the 1980s, conservative evangelicals in the UK not only had their own churches (distinct groupings within major denominations as well as independents), but their own national networks and festivals where worship was radically different from traditional liturgies, and appeared (at least on the surface) to be more contextualised within the culture, as organs were replaced by guitars and drums, and responses were both energetic and vocal. But whereas the circles populated by the likes of Raymond Fung and Lesslie Newbigin were asking far- reaching questions about the nature of the Gospel itself, here there was no room for theological questioning or experimentation, and when the noise of praise bands had subsided many activists in this scene found themselves physically exhausted and spiritually under-nourished.
With the appearance of Dave Tomlinson’s book, The Post-Evangelical in 1995, such people came into the open and claimed a distinctive identity.12 It is no coincidence that a revised edition of this book was published in 2003 in Zondervan’s emergent ys series, which is specifically geared to the emerging church market.13 An early manifestation of this mindset was the rise of so-called ‘altworship’ (alternative worship), as those who felt betrayed by their tradition but still clung to a residual faith, tried to reinvent church, mostly for their own personal healing but often with an intention of showing traditional evangelicalism just how wrong it was. Since the only expression of Christian spirituality offered in evangelical circles tended to be a service of worship, in which preaching usually predominated over other liturgical expressions, it is not surprising that the most obvious manifestation of this ‘post-evangelicalism’ was the reinvention of worship, because they had no other models to work with. Consequently, much ‘altworship’ came to be identified with the use of digital technology, on the one hand, or the adoption of practices like lighting candles, using incense, anointing, or prayers for healing – all things that other Christians had done for centuries, but which had been forbidden in evangelical liturgy, where the sermon was central.14
This rejection of previous forms of belief and styles of worship is now a major driving force in some emerging churches, especially in the American context, where (at least in my experience) it is often easier to discern what they are against than what they are for. The existence of a significant number of people who feel betrayed by their upbringing in conservative churches presents a challenge for those who want to create emerging churches that will have a genuine appreciation for the historic tradition as well as an awareness of the culture. Their leaders will need to ensure that such new ventures are not hijacked by those whose main concern is to find healing for their previous hurts, and who would be satisfied with an individualistic and introspective form of spiritual expression. This is not to belittle the personal angst felt by such people, but if such concerns take precedence over effective mission they will undermine what I take to be the fundamental raison d’ˆetre of the emerging church.
Recommended Reading: To purchase please click on the image to go to Amazon.
After McDonaldization by Dr John Drane
If the work here is meaningful to you, you can partner with me in a very real way through Patreon.com.
Patreon allows people to financially pledge to support artists, writers, musicians, and other creative people.Sunday Everyday has been on line since the first of February 2015. Since that time I have been doing this in a volunteer capacity. For the blog to continue I need your support. You may want to give the amount you would spend on a coffee and muffin once a month. Every bit helps.
Please help support my ministry and magnify my voice by pledging.
Thanks for considering.
- 3 For an informed assessment of this trend, see Heelas and Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution, which is the report of an ethnographic study of the spiritual and religious life of Kendal, a small town on the fringe of the English Lake District.
- 4 Hay and Hunt, Understanding the Spirituality.
- 5 For more on the missional relevance of the cultural context, see Drane, McDonaldization andDrane, Do Christians know how to be Spiritual?
- 6 See Mission-Shaped Church and Fresh Expressions Project.
- 7 The Church of Scotland recognised the importance of the question in its Church Without Wallsreport, which was accepted by its General Assembly in 2001, long before Mission-Shaped Church had even been commissioned. But compared with the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions initiative, virtually nothing of a practical nature has come out of it. A similar comment would apply to the mainline churches in Wales or Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland offers more examples, but still lags well behind what is happening in England in terms of support from existing church denominations.
- 8 Cf Mission and Evangelism.
- 9 Fung, Isaiah Vision.
- 10 See, among many others, Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.
- 11 http://www.gfe.org.uk [cited 12 January 2006].
- 12 Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical, 1995 ed.
- 13 Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical, 2003 rev. ed. For empirical research on this topic, Jamieson,Churchless Faith; and a more personal account in Lynch, Losing my Religion? For ‘ys’ see YouthSpecialties website.
- 14 The now infamous Nine o’clock Service in Sheffield was one of the most high profile instances ofthis trend, but was by no means unique. It would not be fair to imply that the sort of abuse of power that led to the collapse of the Nine o’clock Service was an intrinsic aspect of this scene, though issues of control have tended to be most visible in this part of the emerging church, and disenfranchised evangelicals still have problems over female leadership. This has become a dominant theme in some emerging church conversations: see, for example, references to female leadership in these weblogs: Open Source Theology, Jonny Baker Blogs and Living Room; each of these provides links to other sites where the topic is under discussion.
- 15 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.
- 16 Cf Bosch’s magisterial survey, Transforming Mission.
- 17 On this, see Jenkins, Next Christendom; and for a succinct analysis of the consequences of theend of Christendom for the Western church, Murray, Post-Christendom.
- 18 Tennent, ‘‘The Challenge of Churchless Christianity.’’
- 19 Fowler, Stages of Faith.
- 20 For those not familiar with this terminology, the difference between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ studies isroughly the difference between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The words were first coined by linguist Kenneth Pike in the 1950s, and came into general use following the appearance of a symposium, Emics and Etics, edited by Pike, Headland and Harris.
References Barna, George. Revolution. Ventura, CA: Barna Research, 2005. Bosch, David. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991. Brierley, P., ed. UK Christian Handbook Religious Trends 5: The Future of the Church. London:Christian Research, 2005. Church Without Walls. Report accepted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 2001[cited 12 January 2006]. Available from http://www.churchwithoutwalls.org.uk; INTERNET. Drane, John. The McDonaldization of the Church. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000. Do Christians Know How to be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality & the Mission of the Church. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2005.