The Emerging Church Part 2: by Dr John Drane
However we look at it, the emerging church is a melting pot of many different ideas and themes. It also represents a different style of operation than we have traditionally worked with, and in the process raises some big questions for the church at large, both traditional and emerging.
The emerging church reminds us that the debates over Gospel and culture are far from over, and in fact may just be beginning. The categories set out by Richard Niebuhr are no longer adequate for a post-modern, post-Christian, and post-secular culture.15 In the last 20 years, missiologists have introduced the language of contextualisation, arguing that the incarnational nature of the Gospel requires that it assume a different form in different cultural circumstances.16 Emerging church people (like the majority of the population) just take the culture for granted.
As Ben Edson puts it in his article, “it is the water they swim in, and is not to be deconstructed or analysed, but accepted as the context in which a bigger question is addressed, namely how we may follow Jesus faithfully in this culture”.
But he also highlights the diversity of culture, even from one city to another, and emphasises that what his church does to contextualise the Gospel in Manchester is not necessarily transferable to other locations. In terms of the bigger picture, this raises other questions.
What does contextualisation really mean – and should contextualisation of the Gospel be counter-cultural (a major theme in C. N. de Groot’s critique of ‘liquid church’)?
Moreover, while ‘post-modernity’ is repeatedly referred to as the general cultural context, there is no consensus as to what this actually is. In the articles here, there is not even agreement on how to spell it! Some talk of postmodernism or postmodernity as a self-contained cultural or philosophical system, while others (including me) hyphenate it in order to emphasise its provisionality, claiming only that whatever is going on in the culture, it is less of a coherent worldview, and more post- (in the sense of rejecting or questioning of) what went before it.
The least we can say is that any movement that is defining itself by reference to such a chimera is bound to be very diffuse. Perhaps that is why more than one contributor here discusses the emerging church in terms of liminality.
Of course, the emerging church is not just emerging from post-modernity: it is also emerging from existing forms of church.
Any local manifestation is either emerging from a positive relationship with the ancient tradition, or from a negative reaction against the historically more recent tradition of Protestant fundamentalism, which is not typically regressing to an independent congregational model, but in many cases affirms a spirituality that is entirely individualistic.
If the wider culture poses some significant questions of process for emerging churches, then this consideration goes much deeper and wider. For the issues highlighted here in relation to the emerging church are but a microcosm of the bigger picture that is world Christianity today. The growth of the Church in the non-Western world might well be ‘the next Christendom’, but it is not distinguished by the homogeneity that characterised the first Christendom.17 Quite the reverse, for the ‘post-church faith’ considered by Alan Jamieson is not a phenomenon restricted to disillusioned Western fundamentalists, but is also endemic in the burgeoning indigenous churches of the majority world, which have no clear connection with the historic traditions, not to mention significant numbers of converts who want nothing to do with anything called ‘church’ because they see that as a Western, and therefore imperialistic, construct.18
There are some major ecclesiological questions here.
- In what sense can a follower of Jesus with no connection to a faith community be regarded as authentically Christian?
- And how much connection need there be between a self-invented Christian community and the historic conciliar tradition for that community to be recognised as ‘real’ church?
Perhaps I ought to add a third question, namely, are these the right questions to be asking today – or are they themselves part of the institutionalised mindset that we may need to divest ourselves of ?
Two further points are worth highlighting, for they also relate to wider issues in practical theology and ecclesiology. The language of personal growth and spiritual journey is a major concern in the emerging church, and indeed for Western culture more generally. With family and other traditional networks fragmented if not non-existent, many people feel that the only resource for a meaningful life will be foundwithin themselves. So it is no surprise that two of our contributors (Philip Harrold and Alan Jamieson) specifically connect the concerns of the emerging church with James Fowler’s work on stages of faith.19 This search for personal ontological meaning features in every study that has sought to understand why other forms of spirituality are more attractive than what the Church seems to offer, which suggests it is a matter to which both traditional and emerging churches should pay serious attention.
The importance of the personal spiritual journey is a perennial subject of discussion in the many blogs through which emerging church thinking tends to be disseminated. It is no coincidence that so many of the footnotes in these articles refer not to published books or journal articles, but to websites, blogs, discussion boards and so on.
I do not mind admitting that it has been an editorial challenge to check them all and ensure that the web addresses given in the footnotes are accurate (and given the complexity of them, it is almost inevitable that some will still be incomplete, or even non-existent by the time this issue appears in print). If some readers are surprised to discover that the emerging church is as important as it seems to be from these articles, this may well be the explanation, for until recently there have been few published studies of the phenomenon, and most of the debate has taken place (and continues) in cyberspace. This is another challenge with wider repercussions: those of us who are concerned that our theological reflections should connect with the real questions that people are asking can no longer assume that we will be fully informed by what we discover in libraries, or even in newspapers or on television.
“The emerging church would certainly not be what it now is, were it not for the worldwide web that has facilitated the organic growth of an international network of individuals and groups who are exchanging ideas about it on a daily basis. Indeed, without ready access to this form of instant communication, the emerging church may not exist at all”.
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- 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.