emergent: froth or substance?

I chat online with men and women involved in house churches, church planters and other pioneers creating new ministries. And I speak in the old-fashioned way to peers involved in ‘normal’ pastorates.

Whenever the subject of emerging church or emerging ministries arises, we inevitably have run smack into a hurdle. We tend to flit from one description to the next, unable to come up with a succinct definition. We get excited by it. We want to be part of it. But do we know what it is?

I’ve heard the emerging church described as a ‘return to Acts’ and ‘the bloom of the third world’ (because the church in the two thirds world will rise up and lead the world). I’ve also heard it referred to as the ‘house church’ movement, or ‘community focused church’. I’m certain you could add your own description here.

And after what seems an eternity of time (but in reality only a decade or so) it’s beginning to feel like froth with no substance. Almost like the wishful thinking of the disillusioned.

But something must be there. Something must be causing this tide of discussion.

Before the cynics say it’s the authors and publishers of the ‘next big thing’pushing discussion on the emergent movement, I believe the expanding school of thought is partly due to a rising dissatisfaction with the western church. The beginning of a quest, if you like, to bring life back to the ‘dry bones’.

Many of my pastor peers have tired of the consumer mentality within congregations and church society in general. We train pastors for success, attend conferences to help us replicate the latest, greatest church growth model in order to appease the masses and build the mega church.

As a result the average pastor can become disheartened by the lack of any real (conversion) growth within God’s family.

Comprehending the emerging church discussion for me was like grasping at water. But through reading books such as Young Evangelicals by Webber, and Revolution by Barna (not to mention the writings of McManus) I’ve finally been able to get a handle on it.

I remember the moment this epiphany occurred. I was attending an Erwin McManus conference in Brisbane and for the first time, it seemed like I was interacting with someone who understood my view of the world and who could verbalize what I could not about the emergent movement. For the first time, my ministry felt legitimized in some way. It was a combining of what I had known to be true yet had been unable to place into my theological framework.

So let’s have a look at the most common misunderstandings, or at the very least incomplete descriptions, of the emerging church.

Number one: the emerging church is all about the return of the Acts church. This description is probably the most common. While it may be true to a degree it is not the whole picture. Simply superimposing the Acts model onto our post-modern society is doomed. It would be contextually inappropriate. Besides, nowhere do I read in Acts, This is how it is meant to be done. The Acts account is not a be-all-and-end- all picture of how church should be. It is however, a starting point and a great basis for a biblical framework which can keep us on track and not off serving a man-made kingdom.

Within this particular ‘return to Acts’ culture the apostolic question has been raised. Some say, ‘Finally a return to the model of apostles as in the book of Acts YIPPEEE!’ Straight away the emerging church is on a tired old bumpy road! And others may be thinking, ‘Oh no, not this debate again’.

Tied in with this notion of a return to Acts there are those who are wearing their signs and wonders badges. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in signs and wonders. Jesus is the greatest sign and wonder known to man! But amongst the signs and wonders brigade there is an element who are at best dangerous.

In the words of social commentator Homer Simpson, ‘Doh!’ The road to a clear definition of the emerging church via the ‘return to Acts’ description looks almost impassable.

This view becomes even more clouded when the hard core fundamentalists enter the fray. These are the men (and indeed some women) who won’t allow a female to be involved in any sort of secular work or public ministry. To them a return to Acts means something entirely different again!

In fact, the emerging church concept is roping in lots of people and to each one it means something different. Even if we try and think about it in terms of a return to Acts model, it is still a slippery concept to grasp.

Moving on. The other view of the emerging church is that it is simply the coming of age of the two thirds world church.

You’ve only to read James Rutz’ Megashift to see what God is doing in His church in the two thirds world. Surely, the emerging church will come from this outpouring of the Spirit in these countries?

But is anything really different in this movement? What has the church done in the two thirds world which the church in the west hasn’t already espoused? Besides, it seems God has worked in different ways most of the time. And let’s be honest most, if not all, the time I don’t know how or why He works!

Have a look at the Transformations video series. Every city, every nation has a different angle on the outpouring of His Spirit! Another example can be gleaned from hearing contemporary ‘success stories’ talk about the next best thing in church growth. I am certain half these blokes started a work not knowing where they were going, but God turned up and blessed them. Then, in hindsight, they sat down and analyzed and wrote about it, attempting to put it into some sort of framework. (As though the framework was the key!)

I believe if the emerging church is to be any sort of force in a lost and dying world then it quite simply has to be a work of God. Not just some formula followed or copied. That’s a relief, because I can’t afford to attend any more conferences! My little mind can not take yet ‘another pathway to success’.

And the last thing I want to say about the explosion of the two thirds world church is this: while the movement of God in other parts of the world is exciting and wonderful and demands our attention, it means nothing for us if it remains ‘over there’.

A third view of the emerging church is an oldie but a goodie: it is the rise of ‘house churches’ and a return to community focus.

This group is greatly diverse, and with such diversity comes conflicting opinions. For example a mere mention of community raises the question of which community? Is the focus to be on creating and fostering God’s community or the community outside the family of God.

My friends online in the house church movement have told me how they go to one house church and all of the focus is on the community of believers. Then a short time later when a falling out occurs they end up in another group where the key focus is on the outside community. For many, mission and ecclesiology seem unable to live together. Which one comes first?

In the ocean of discussion about the emergent movement, very few seem to be talking in terms of ecclesiology for mission.

Pause for a minute. This, I think, might be the key, the truth that binds this all together. Most of us who long to see something great come out of this nexus of ideas, we long for the church to be one in which mission is accomplished. Where evangelism is finally taking place effectively.

The process of evangelism is really simple. Only when we speak to the hearts, minds and finally soul or spirit of a person can the process be effective. People need to be receptive to hear the truth. The truth must be acted upon. The soul is changed.

Now this is were it gets exciting. After all this talk about community I can see the importance it will play in the first step of evangelism. Community is vital! People need to feel as though they belong, even moreso with security of all kinds failing (eg national defence, financial, relational, societal). The community which the family of God can offer is paramount for evangelism. A change has taken place, we have gone from believe (in Christ) then belong to belong (to the Christian community) then believe.

I’m not condoning a watered-down salvation message which promotes, ‘Come to Jesus and you can belong and feel safe’. In fact it is, ‘Come to Jesus because He is worth the risks and dangers you SHALL face’. That is the sort of community we need to foster. A community which espouses the dangers/risks of following Jesus yet is certain that He is worth it!

To me this is a return to the principles of Acts anyway. The issue of apostles and prophets in all honesty is a waste of time for the emerging church. For far too long we’ve been consumed with matters inconsequential to extending His Kingdom!

Ecclesiology in terms of mission is exciting, not just because it gets the job done, but because it continues to fan the flame of evangelism. The standard model of our churches has been: once a person is saved we pluck them out of their environment and educate them. This has been called ‘salvation lift’. When we talk about ecclesiology in terms of mission we don’t have that problem because the two communities are so intertwined.

The emerging church is a church which understands ecclesiology in terms of it being missional. It is a return to the values from Acts. That is, the emerging church fully understands what it means by the phrase, ‘Jesus is worth it all’. The emerging church is far more fluid than ever before, where every single thing a believer does is seen as a mission opportunity.

Could it be that in the emerging church there will not just be theology but theology in action?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email