In a few weeks time, my colleague Kevin Ward will be giving a lecture entitled ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’. It’s a good question, and for me it invites some assessment of the topic itself.
I am neither an expert – nor the son of one – on anything to do with the emerging church. I have splashed only in the shallows of the literature, and in none of the critiques. But that’s never stopped me having an opinion before. So here goes:
At the risk of copping out before I start, I want to suggest that there is a sense in which it is really too early to fully assess the movement (if it can be called that) known as ’emerging’. Also, any assessment is considerably hampered by the movement’s substantial diversity. That said, are there not some positive things that we can identify about the ’emerging’ movement, at least in its best proponents. These include:
(i) its sounding calls for the Church to appreciate and learn from its traditions without being bound to them;
(ii) its concern to treat Church, theology and mission as part of the one action of God rather than as separate departments in the Christian organisation;
(iii) its desire to relate positively – though not uncritically – to postmodern culture. This is evidenced, for example, in its preference for narrative over traditional systematics, its positive employment of technology, and its tendency towards eclectic worship;
(iv) its encouraging of people to read their Bibles and to take seriously the call of Jesus as the way of authentic discipleship that challenges some secular assumptions and worldly social injustices;
(v) its rejection of classic liberalism;
(vi) its conviction about the imperativeness [and yes that is a word … I looked it up!] of community for doing both life and theology; and
(vii) its creative and energetic spirituality.
And here are some of my concerns:
(i) there is strong tendency to prematurely deconstruct important traditional doctrines without fully appreciating their value and necessity for theology;
(ii) its way of throwing off the shackles of ‘dead’ ecclesiology encourages antinomianism;
(iii) there is a tendency (as in many immature movements) to identify itself reacting against other things (in this case a largely conservative form of evangelicalism) rather than constructively for things. At times this manifests itself in an intolerant, impatient and arrogant spirit;
(iv) in some of its less-informed proponents, there is a complete rejection of the tradition, and a de-centralising of christology from the heart of the Christian gospel. Again, this is definately not something unique to the emerging culture;
(v) there is a lack of clarity over its relationship with secular postmodernism (this, again, is not a problem unique to the ’emerging church’ but is closer to its heartbeat than it is to other ecclesiological forms) and too little critical thinking is being done on the relationship between gospel and culture. I recall those words from William R. Inge (Dean of St Pauls’ Cathedral, 1911-1934): ‘if you marry the spirit of your own generation, you will be a widow in the next’.
(vi) a hyped-up sense of the evangelistic benefits of its ecclesiology. Is there any evidence that ’emergent’ churches are more ‘successful’ in reaching the unchurched than the mainstream church is? [A wee confession: I hate these kinds of anti-theological and pragmatically-driven questions, but since this is often posed as one of emergent’s ‘selling points’ it at least needs to be asked];
(vii) there is a lack of clarity over its relationship with the mainstream Christian community, and little desire (as far as I can see) to formulate one; and
(viii) circular obsessions concerning who is and who is not ’emergent’, ’emerging’ or whatever other descriptor is in vogue this week are an annoying waste of energy.
It seems to me that if the ’emerging church’ movement is to have a positive impact on the Church more broadly it will have to – as many of its leading proponents are beconing aware – develop a serious systematic theology. The Lord has a way and a history of shaking up his people from complacency. That movement called ’emergent’ may be God’s way of doing this again in our generation. Time will tell.
What am I missing?
I look forward to hearing what Kevin has to say, but until then I’m just thinking out loud.