In 2003 I was in college and reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. It was unlike anything I had ever read in Christian literature. The book simultaneously bothered and encouraged me. I thought I understood about half of the issues discussed, but I actually grasped far less. Despite my ignorance, I was hooked—even though I didn’t fully know why.
To varying degrees I think many church leaders, whether paid or unpaid, have had a similar experience with their first contact with the emerging church movement. Perhaps you were like me and had no context to process what McLaren and others were proposing. Or perhaps you were well versed on the rise of postmodernity and its seeming contradictions to Evangelical Christianity. The emerging church is in many ways an enigma (perhaps intentionally) that even those within the movement have a hard time defining.
Reactions to the emerging church are incredibly polarized. Many of my contemporaries embraced the ideals and postures of the emerging conversation and have sought to live it out in their various contexts. Sadly this move toward emerging postures is commonly dripping with cynicism and bitterness toward the existing church.
In the last few years as I have served in paid church ministry, I have found that nearly all existing church leaders are at least leery of the movement and, in more than a few cases, downright hostile toward it. These reactions do not give me hope. Cynicism and hostility are simply not acceptable options toward any tribe of Christians.
This brought me to this question: “Is there an ‘emerging’ for the rest of us?” Can we embrace the good challenges coming from the emerging church movement without giving up on the existing congregations we know and serve? I’ve learned that the answer to this question doesn’t come easily. J.P. Jones at First Christian in Champaign, Illinois, shared his frustration with me:
“Overall, I think my attitude toward the movement is fairly open; however, in some of the materials I’ve read it seems the movement has some spirit of cynicism toward the local church that I don’t believe is appropriate.”
It’s clear many emerging church leaders have little hope for the existing church. Their writing shows an explicit and implicit pattern: leave the existing church and start over with something new, because the modern practices of the established church are far too entrenched to be changed. I, however, have no interest in a model that gives up on local churches.
Maybe you are like many who are not open to the emerging church and the postures it embodies. For many (myself included), the postmodern characteristic of relativism is a sticking point. When carried to its fullest conclusion, all truth becomes subjective to the individual. Student pastor Ryne Isaac of First Christian Church in Moweaqua, Illinois, describes this tension:
I think the greatest challenge of postmodernism is relativism. Relativism is a complicated cop-out. It allows us to do what we want and warrant it as OK because it is “right for us” . . . Relativism is a stark contrast to the message of Christianity. It would be a great challenge to get a person to lay down the comforts of relativism when it allows him to justify any action or decision in his life.
The challenges of relativism are a stark reality in a postmodern age. Interacting with people who hold this perspective will be incredibly difficult, but no more difficult than evangelistic challenges faced at other times. Even for those suspicious of the emerging church movement, it is hard to deny it has been successful in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to people of all ages who aren’t darkening the doorways of many existing churches.
And so the traditional church can choose to fully embrace or completely condemn the emerging church, or we can try and forge a third way in which we learn and selectively apply principles. If choosing the latter, I would suggest three basic concepts that the emerging church seems to be living out well.
Many churches have a mission statement, a sentence or two that seeks to summarize the essence of your church’s ministry. However, for many of us our mission statement highlights an unrealized goal—only occasionally do we come close to living it out.
Our local churches should serve as base camps to engage the local community and hospitals for the spiritually wounded. Too often, however, churches become museums, preserving something good from the past. Museums are important, but hospitals are essential.
D.A. Carson characterizes the emerging church as a protest movement. One of the main critiques the emerging church leaders have lobbed toward the rest of us has been that many in our churches are compartmentalizing their faith. These “Sunday Christians” attend church regularly, sing along, and even take a few notes, but lack any discernible changes come Monday.
I resonate with this charge because, although not universal, it is accurate. Paul Mumaw, lead pastor at Genesis Church in Noblesville, Indiana, talks about getting away from the Sunday “Big Show” mentality. The Sunday performance mentality is great for drawing new people in, but it can forestall development of spiritual depth.
To counteract this, many churches, both emerging and modern, have advocated the mission field approach. Shawn Case, the weekend experience leader at Southbrook Christian Church in Miamisburg, Ohio, said, “It is my hope we can help people understand and embrace that they are the church and are already in their mission field and that buildings and programs are tools and resources and not the end goal.”
The emerging church is/has been associated with the missional movement because it stresses community involvement so strongly. Our churches need to start taking those mission statements and living them out.
Honesty and Humility
Several recent studies painfully describe just what those outside the local church think about those within it. Justly or unjustly, many who visit our churches enter with negative preconceptions.
In modernism, certainty is king. We learned the scientific method as the tool to understand the world around us. If it couldn’t be tested or valued, it was suspect. Ultimately this has been a great thing for society. Without the scientific method we wouldn’t have the Apollo program or the polio vaccine. In contrast, postmodernism is much more accepting of mystery and uncertainty. Postmodernists are OK with not having all the answers.
As modernism sought out certainty and answers, much of the ecumenical structure was concerned with transferring the correct information. Postmodern contexts value correct action, at times more so than correct belief. This may be a leap too far for many, but I think we all can see value in a church that elevates deeds that match beliefs.
Titus Benton, associate student pastor at First Christian of Florissant, Missouri, put it this way: “An emphasis on personal relationships is classic emerging church movement, but it’s also classic New Testament.”
The professionalization of ministry has led to more qualified leaders and preachers, but it also has instilled a sense that ministry is done only by the pros. Those in paid ministry realize the danger of this unintended consequence. And emerging churches have embraced various models of egalitarian authority that engage unhealthy perspectives on who does ministry.
The natural tendency for leaders is to hoard authority, but successful leaders must empower others with responsibility if they want to be sustainable. Shawn Case says his church is “exploring how we can shift our church culture from one that relies heavily on the staff to provide programs people can benefit from to a culture where we (staff) can help equip people as they live out the reflection of Christ in their communities.”
Live in the Tension
It is easy to draw boundaries and walls, but those boundaries limit you and your church. You may not agree with what the new church down the street or across the country is doing, but I know you can learn something from them. Maybe their critiques sting for a reason. Working through something is harder than writing it off. It might be just what you and the church need to hear.
Josh Tandy serves as student pastor with Genesis Church in Noblesville, Indiana. You can read his blog at joshtandy.com.