Monday, February 20, 2006

"Emerging Churches" -- A Review

Emerging Churches -- Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) US$19.99

A Review by Richard Kew

I have been reading excellent stuff written by my friend, Eddie Gibbs, for a very long time. Eddie is the Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Seminary, a former missionary in South America, a parish priest, and one of the other English evangelical Anglican exiles on this side of the Pond. Eddie and Ryan Bolger, who teaches contemporary culture at Fuller, have put together this interesting overview of the emerging church movement that I encourage others to read.

The assumption behind Emerging Churches is that the culture is undergoing radical change and that there are young Christian leaders who are attempting to re-present the faith in such a way that it speaks meaningfully into the changing society. Gibbs and Bolger look at both the American and the British scenes, providing a fascinating overview of some of the things that are going on, and some of the players involved in these attempts to reconnect the Gospel within a disconnected culture.

While I recommend this book, and I believe there is a lot of information within it that we do well to ponder with great care, I confess that I generally found the material less engaging as I read on. The reasons for this has nothing to do with Gibbs and Bolger who write beautifully, it has more to do with the cast of characters they present to us. I began the book feeling highly sympathetic toward these young pioneers, but as I read part of myself became a little impatient toward some them.

No doubt my impatience was partly that of an older person who discovered some of the things that they are stumbling across a while back, and has that irritation that goes with seeing a new generation having to learn afresh how to re-invent the wheel! Sometimes, also, they did seem a little whinny. But I take full responsibility for my own shortcomings in this matter.

However, there is more to it than that, and I dropped a line to Eddie Gibbs just to make sure that my perceptions were somewhere near target. Eddie responded by saying, that emerging Churches do not represent a cohesive movement -- something that is utterly obvious from this book, and that they are all over the place theologically. Something that again is very clear. Indeed, one of the things that worried me was that in their desire not to be boxed in by the inheritance of an evangelical past, they at times have been throwing out both baby and bathwater.

Let me illustrate this. The other week I saw a piece in Leadership by Bruce McLaren, the guru of the Emerging Churches, dealing with the whole issue of sexuality. It seemed to me that while he was pastorally extraordinarily sensitive, and rightly so, his approach theologically naive and unformed. Emergers don't want to fall into the old legalisms of their forebears, so call themselves things like 'postevangelical,' but the truth is that sometmes they are sitting far too loose to old boundaries, and are in danger doing damage to all boundaries, both theological and ethical.

Yet, as Eddie said to me in his response, "we have endeavored... to let them speak because we think they have some valuable things to say," and it is to these valuable things to which we ought to be listening. The image I found developing in my mind of these Emergers is that they are like the shock troops of the first new wave of re-formation that is starting to tumble over the churches, and I suspect that they will have an influence that is far greater than their numbers can ever be.

Gibbs and Bolger write that there are nine practices of the way of Jesus that they see in emerging churches as they seek to live out and address the Good News in postmodern cultures. "Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activites" (Page 45). Each chapter of the book enlarges on these basic themes.

There is a lot more to the Emergers than being a Gen-X Gen-Y add-on to existing congregations. When this has happened it has not, by and large, been particularly successful. "Both fundamentalist and mainline churches will... face numerous challenges in becoming emerging churches, as both of these forms of church are imbedded in modern culture as well. Those churches that preceded the Reformation (Catholic and Orthodox), and to a larger extent Anglicanism, have many practices that resonate with those of emerging churches" (Page 45).

What fascinated me in reading this book was the emphasis Emergers place upon the Kingdom of God, and their willingness to dismantle past church approaches and practices because they are no longer culturally viable. They are eager to do away with the secular-sacred dichotomy that was an entrenched part of modernity (and therefore all flavors of Christianity that have been shaped by modernity), in favor of making the whole world sacred space.

The theologians who have influenced the emerging nexus have been the likes of Bishop Tom Wright of Durham; the Mennonite, John Howard Yoder; the South African missiologist, David Bosch; and Bishop Lesslie Newbiggin. This primary dependence upon a former generation of thinkers fits well with my own thesis that it takes at least a generation for something fresh to become rooted in the life of the church. The focus of these new churches is obedience to the missio Dei, which means that they are pivoting away from a come-and-visit-us approach to outreach to one which is rooted and grounded in the commandment, "Go!"

As one of the young British leaders says, "In the U.K. people would no more drop into a church for a casual visit than an outsider might drop into a mosque or a gay bar for a casual visit" (Page 51), which means we not only have to rethink the fundmanentals of our theology but also the praxis that results from it.

Here is the problem, as I see it, the Emergers have not yet done the necessary theological work to provide the philosophical and ideological undergirding that the new challenges require. I say 'yet' because it is obvious that this is a voyage of discovery, and there will probably need to be a few more disasters (like the implosion of the Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield, England, a few years ago) before the validity of a measure of intellectual clarity and spiritual discipline becomes patently obvious to them.

When I was a young Christian leader I used to get impatient when my elders urged us, for example, to think theologically about what we are doing. I have learned over and over again, especially in recent years, how important this is. It has been saddening for me to watch many alongside whom I once labored, sycretizing the essence of the faith with so many of the contrary elements of the prevailing, and to use Oden's word, liberted, culture. However, the Emergers are also right press those of us who consider ourselves orthodox (and, perhaps, evangelical) to ask serious questions about how we have allowed ourselves to be trapped modernity so that we have distorted the Gospel -- and to correct the situation.

Perhaps this is one of the ways we might look at the Emerging Churches, that they are a corrective during a time of significant transition. There is a lot that Gibbs and Bolger have put their finger on in their research that has me sitting back and asking questions both of my theology and my praxis, and as this makes me feel uncomfortable, it is probably a pretty good thing.

I was fascinated to read how British emerging churches are relating to the club scene, something whose omnipresence I became intensely aware of when I was in Blackpool a couple of years ago for the National Evangelical Anglican Congress. Whereas old-fashioned evangelicals might look down on the clubbing life, Emergers have found ways to reach into it, learn from it, teach it, and meld with some of the alternatives that are coming down the pike.

Perhaps the great message which keeps repeating itself is that Emergers are not willing to "accept the modern church's truncated form of the sacred. Instead, they create a spirituality for all of life." This is vital because the churches as we have inherited them find themselves as essentially secular entities surrounded by an increasingly spiritual culture (Page 72). This thought alone has given me several hours of raw material to ponder since starting reading this book.

I am writing on a cold February day, but this is the time of the year in England when the snowdrops begin to poke their heads up, flowers that announce spring is on its way. (As you can guess, living in far off Tennessee I miss England's snowdrops). The Emerging Church nexus is like those snowdrops, fragile and apparently vulnerable, but tough enough to survive the icy blasts and to signal something significant is going on.

As Dr. Gibbs says, there is nothing cohesive about this, but it seems to be a primeval urge to be Gospel people in the different sort of world that is emerging. Amidst the good things there is some self-indulgence, over-reaction against a fundamentalist past, half-digested theologies, a certain lack of spiritual and moral discipline, a glorifications of smallness for the sake of being small, and so forth. I could, if I wanted, pick a lot of holes in this wave, but isn't this always the case when people are exploring new ways forward?

I find myself asking all sorts of questions. One that keeps coming to the top of the pile is how might we in the mainstream might give them appropriate support and encouragement, without seeking to tame them or press them into our mold? Then the Emergers themselves need to be asking how they might make what they are working on more accessible to those of us who are prepare to share some of this journey with them.

Undoubtably what is dross will be discovered and discarded, but what is of value will bear fruit as these pioneers drag the rest of us kicking and screaming, perhaps, into a new kind of church in a different kind of world. Eddie Gibbs said to me that the significant Emergers are the ones who are truly missional, and often they have engaged not only the culture in which we live, but also the historic traditions and disciplines, many of which are very much part of our Anglican heritage.

I believe that God is remaking the church. I believe that the agonies we are going through in North American Anglicanism are part of that remaking. I believe that we ignore what they Emerging Churches are about at our own peril. I believe that as presently formulated neither ECUSA nor any of the more recent offshoots of it can fully grasp the importance of the Emerging Churches. I believe that we need to be a lot more open to what they are saying and doing -- and to be willing to make the changes necessary to learn from them and open the door for them into our midst. But here's a warning -- it might be worthwhile, but it won't be a comfortable ride.

1 comment:

Andy Rowell said...

Superb review. Thank you for a personally sympathetic but pastorally frank review. I'm 30 but agree totally with your review. In particular, I thought Gibbs and Bolger incorrectly emphasized the "small for the sake of small aspect" of the movement. I hope you have younger pastors under you to mentor. They would be in good hands based on this review.