It depends on what you mean by emerging church…
This question was asked in the comments section of a recent post by a long time reader and I thought I’d take a few words to offer my thoughts on the subject. This blog began around the time the ’emerging church’ was becoming a valid topic of conversation – a hot topic in many instances and was a specific focus of what I wrote here for several years.
In its infancy ’emerging church’ almost became anything that wasn’t traditional. It was definitely more nuanced than that, but the early tone was a breaking away from established modes of church that clearly hadn’t been over successful in engaging the culture. It paralleled the great interest (among evangelical Christians) in the subject of post-modernism and how the church related to the world in this age of relativity and uncertainty.
This blog began as part of my own journey into a missionary adventure – one that had overlap with the emerging church scene. But one of the great struggles was always in the defining of terms and ’emerging church’ became and still is a very loaded term. Recently I listened to someone in our own church who knows nothing my involvement in this movement speak in disparaging terms of ‘Rick Warren and the emerging church’. I said nothing partly because I really don’t care. I don’t care that Rick Warren was never really in the ’emerging church’ camp (which camp?) nor do I care that my friend sees the emerging church as heretical and off-beat. I found the misinformed comments little more than amusing.
We weren’t long into the ’emerging church’ conversation when we realised that it meant fairly different things in different countries and to different leaders around the world. Being a grassroots movement that was always going to be both its beauty and its struggle. So in 2006 when Don Carson came to Perth to speak about the his book ‘Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church’ and Geoff Westlake and I were invited to have a public conversation with him (it was called a debate, but it was nicer than that…) we saw that Carson’s critique might have had credence in some parts of the world but not others. (My old mate TSK gave a write up here and my own notes are here). The Australian scene in particular had taken on the description of ’emerging missional church’ as a way of giving some focus to the impetus of the movement. At Forge we were about preparing people for mission in the first world and calling the church back to its task of mission, as opposed to simply deconstructing theology and critiquing.
I have fond memories of many conversations (both on here and in person) that developed as a result of walking down the ’emerging church’ road – of being with people who now had permission to think differently and question, yet also with a sense of focus and purpose – that of recovering a missional agenda for the church.
So where are we now?
I can’t speak for the rest of the world but my take on where things are at in Oz is that the ’emerging missional church’ served primarily a prophetic function in the church from around 2000 onwards thru to about 2008/9. It served to poke the church and critique its modes of operation, sometimes kindly, but often with a hot stick. My observation was that the ‘people in the pews’ resonated well with the language and intent, but pastors and leaders often felt threatened. It was after all a critique of the way they were functioning so that made sense.
The influence of thinkers like Newbiggin, Bosch and Guder etc on those of us in leadership was quite significant. I remember feeling like a veil had been lifted over my eyes and permission given to really think differently about how we organised ourselves as church.
What I noticed over time however was both an acceptance of missional language and rhetoric by churches and a softening in critique by those of us deep inside the movement. If I were to sum up much of my focus in that time it was simply ‘lets stop trying to get people in the community into to church and start trying to get the church back into the community.’ Much of what I read in denominational literature is now flavoured with a missional incarnational bent. Churches are encouraged to approach mission creatively and innovatively. There is a move from bigger is better to missionary effectiveness is better. And from my own observations the stuff that was offensive in 2003 is now mainstream in 2014. In fact I’d go further and say its virtually passe.
The message has been heard and the energy has shifted. It’d be hard not to find a church these days that takes local mission seriously and that is willing to explore new avenues to connect with those who are in the community.
I don’t know that any of us in the movement knew at the time that its primary role was to be prophetic. I think we hoped we were giving birth to a church planting movement, but that really didn’t happen and many of the communities that were born in that time have since faded out or morphed into more regular expressions of church.
I haven’t written much about ‘missional church’ on this blog for a very long time. Not because I don’t think its important, but more because its like writing about breathing. You just do it. You just get on with it. Oddly enough I doubt many (if any) in our current church would know anything of my time in this space as I rarely speak of it. I don’t ‘hide’ it, but it just doesn’t bear talking about much.
Having said that my own expression of church that I have been part of and leading for the last 5 years is spectacularly unsexy and probably lacking what I would have once considered visible missional energy. I use the word visible intentionally because what happens in people’s everyday lives is generally invisible. If we measure missional energy by the projects we engage in together then we aren’t kicking many goals, but if I listen to the men and women in our community speak of how they live their everyday lives then I hear and see an intent to listen to the spirit and follow him into the places he leads.
As we consider and pray about a church here in Yanchep it isn’t with some sense of starting something new and funky – which was early days ’emerging church’ form. But it is with the intent of immersing ourselves in this community of people, listening to them, getting to know them and discerning what it would look like for the gospel to take root here, what it would look like for a Christian community to be birthed here and what it would look like if the kingdom of God were to spark here.
So my personal assessment is that the ’emerging church’ is no longer needed as much as it was. It did its job – sometimes well and sometimes not so well. The language has definitely shifted and some of the practice as well. But for me… I guess I’ve moved on. I don’t mean that either proudly or disparagingly. I can’t summon much energy for the things we once spent hours debating and fighting for and that’s partly because the air has gone out of the ball and partly because I’m ten years older and in a different space personally.
I dunno what others think, but my guess is that even this post won’t garner much in way of response because the topic is dead in the water.
It certainly doesn’t mean seeking the kingdom of God is dead, or missional energy has gone, but I think the energy that once gave rise to these subjects is pretty well dissipated and I think that’s a good thing.
We can pay attention to what God is saying to us now and get on with that instead
Good post. Makes one wonder what is next, and what will happen to whatever the ‘next big thing is’ – quite possible, absorption, again! It is sad that the more radical expressions of church and community have not survived well – but they rarely do, which doesn’t make them wrong.
Thanks Nathan – I sure hope we get past ‘next big things’!
My way of describing things was that there wasn’t an Emerging Church, but there were emerging trends in the church, such as:
Experimenting with different shapes of church and worship
Building the church around the mission
Giving more attention to wealth & poverty issues
Evangelicals taking on a wider range of theology (liberal, traditional, other)
Those things have now “emerged”. And as you say, missional thinking has gone mainstream. Some of the cutting edge workers now have jobs in the denominational offices.
As a pastor trying to lead a church and ‘take that mountain,’ I often feel anything but spectacular.