Improvising Church: An Introduction to the Emerging Church Conversation by Scott Bader-Saye

(In International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, vol. 6, no. 1, March 2006, pp.12-23)

I stumbled across this excellent article recently – it’s the best introduction to the emerging church movement that I’ve read.  (If you don’t have journal access I found a copy here.)

To my mind there are three key characteristics which are important to understand in the emerging church movement. They are all challenges posed by ‘postmodernism’ and the nature of the response varies between individuals and communities, hence the great variety in the movement.  But that’s why Scott Bader-Saye’s article is so helpful – this is the emerging church.  It is evolving, improvising as best it can to a world which is shifting beneath our feet.

The emerging church movement is responding to:

  • philosophical shifts about the nature of knowledge and truth – how do we have humility around human limitations of knowing and still say something meaningful about God?
  • the cultural shifts brought on by the digital age – multi-media, fast-paced, fragmented communication, globalised markets, etc.
  • the demise of the Institutional Church – a desire to recover the missional heart of the church.  Discipleship which is good news not only for ourselves.

New Monasticism: what it has to say to today’s church by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

(Brazos Press; USA, 2008)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an eloquent writer whose passion for Jesus and compassion for people shines through in this book as he ‘shares his testimony’.  It’s a journey into following Jesus with all his heart, soul, mind and strength which was really marked one morning as “rushed past Jesus in the subway” – a growing up moment for him as a young man and as a Christian.  It’s easy to be inspired as we listen to him describe his community and his life and at the end of the book, I wanted to be praying and living just like him!

Another snippet that I want to remember is as he describes the movement of new monasticism as a response to the world in which present Christians find themselves in the USA.  At the close of After Virtue Alistair MacIntyre famously says, “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”  Jonathan touchingly quotes his father-in-law as saying what he hoped for  was “not a new a new St. Benedict, but Christian communities that may produce a new St. Benedict.” p.38

Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

(IVP; USA, 2009)

This is the first book I have read on kindle which was fun!  If you didn’t know, you can get a free version of kindle for PC from Amazon which means books cost around 1/3 the price!

Deep Church is a thoughtful and useful critique of Emerging Church movements and the Traditional Churches which have spawned them, focusing on the US context.  What was particularly interesting to me was that Belchers ‘third way’ seemed not much different from the kind of ‘classical christianity’ that many in the Anglican tradition might take for granted.  (JB interacts with the ‘new ecumenism’ of Tom Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, to define this term.)  Given that Belcher’s critique focuses on protestant traditions in America, it was really helpful to gain some perspective on the differences within the Emerging Church world wide.  I felt that Emerging from an historical Anglican context differs from the US context Belcher is describing in a few significant ways:  1. it’s existing liturgical and sacramental practices;  2. stronger continuity of pre-modern Christianity through-out the Enlightenment era;  3. a more sophisticated expression of the reformed priority of scripture;  4. a habit of unifying fellowship with others in the denomination holding different perspectives which, when coupled with strong leadership in the hierarchy like it has in the UK, promotes experimentation with new forms or formats without fragmentation.

In a similar vein, it was helpful to reflect on JB’s three main groups in the emerging family – 1. relevants;  2. recontructionists; and 3. revisionists.  Each of these groups have a different hermeneutic and a different relationship to the historical church.  I am oversimplifying the book’s analysis when I say this, but it is particularly useful to distinguish the engagement with post-modernism in these distinctions.  JB argues that much of the misunderstandings (and mistrust) between the emerging church and traditional church as a whole are derived from different interpretations of postmodernism, seen clearly in the debate around whether postmodernism is a cultural shift continuous or discontinuous with modernism as expressed in the Enlightenment.  The term postmodernism is now used loosely in a wide variety of contexts to describe the fact that the western world has changed radically in the past half century.  I would call these sociological (or socio-cultural) definitions.  However, in philosophical and political terms postmodernism is referring to something much more specific – about ways of new ways knowing and thinking which are commonly grouped under the terms ‘relativism’ or ‘pluralism.’  The questions are around subjective and objective reality – in what way is the gospel a universal entity across time, space and relationships?  It is easy to see how mistrust occurs if one conversation partner is assuming post-modernity is synonymous with subjective relativity and the other is using the term to refer to a cluster of cultural shifts!  My own version of post-modernity is, unsurprisingly for a sociologist, a socio-cultural definition but it  incorporates reference to the epistemological and hermeneutic shifts in response to the new global realities made possible by the technological revolution.

A second thread of insight that I gained from reading Deep Church was incidental to the book itself.  JB has quite a good discussion on the debate about ‘bounded set’ ways of being:doing verses ‘centered set’ ways of being:doing  – a model made familiar to many in Australia through Al Hirsh, Mike Frost and the Forge network.  (If you’re unfamiliar with these terms check out M Frost & A Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come:  Innovation and Mission for the  21st-centrury (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003)).  In a centered set model, individuals are drawn to the central gathering point (eg. Jesus)  by virtue of their own desires for connection rather than by virtue of rule or role.  Anyone who is turning towards Jesus is welcome in the community.  JB proposes that, in order to retain objective tenants of gospel belief, a gospel community must maintain an ‘inner circle’ of belonging.  A circle of people who will maintain the truth and subscribe to the high standards of living prescribed by the gospel.  This is a problematic notion for relational community – how does one not prevent an ‘us and them’ if there is an inner circle of membership?

It was at this point that I recalled the notion of ‘vicarious membership’ coined by sociologist Grace Davie.  (see Religion in Modern Europe, 2000)  Vicarious membership is a sociological phenomena whereby a large number of a social group express their membership vicariously through a small committed minority.  In Europe and the UK, Davie observes this happening with religion – large portions of society expect the church (building, faith and ministry) to be maintained and do indeed avail themselves of the services of the church when deemed relevant.  Society expects the faithful to be faithful!  It seems to me, that as a person of no or variant faith enters into a christian faith community, there is always an element of vicarious faith in Jesus Christ.  The new comer relies on those who are more established in the group and look to them for guidance as to how to behave, what to believe and how to interact.  It’s simply the old fashioned notion of socialisation!  When membership is defined by an individual’s connection to other members (belonging before believing) as opposed to membership by signing a bureaucratic form, minimum regular attendance or doctrinal adherence to a predetermined profession of faith, there will always be an element of vicarious faith in the socialisation process.  Unless the centered set model is sophisticated with insights from organisational psychology about group formation, it cannot sustain the weight of expectation put upon it as a descriptor of emerging church communities.

Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practie

Book 1 in The Ancient Practice Series  (Thomas Nelson; USA, 2008)

There are 8 books in this series on the Ancient Practises – Prayer (what I am calling centering and the series calls constant prayer); Sabbath; Fasting; Sacred Meal; Pilgrimage; Liturgical Year; and Tithing.  Brian McLaren provides a kind of introduction to and rationale for embracing these ancient spiritual disciplines in the postmodern context.  It’s something I love about the Emerging Church and resonates strongly with my own Anglican tradition. It’s an easy read, which is quite an achievement when you discover that McLaren is explaining key theological concepts like katharsis, fotosis and theosis!  A great book to get started on a well worn path.

Steve Croft & Ian Mobsby (eds), Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition

(Canterbury Press; UK, 2009)

Steven Croft notes, in his chapter of this book, that there is a fairly even spread of interest in Fresh Expressions across all traditions of the Anglican Church in the UK.  This book however, offers inspirational stories and insightful theological musings from the catholic or sacramental end of the spectrum.  The testimonies from Anglican communities of faith pursuing goodness and holiness together made me wish that I lived on the other side of the world!

Brian McLaren, in his chapter, describes how Anglicanism has easy access to pre-modern Christian spirituality which places it in strong position to combat Modernist Reductionism.  This is a great quote from him:

“Christian faith was severely reduced in the modern Western Church; it gradually shrank from a robust, integrated and generous way of life into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief… No doubt, at the fringes, Anglicans have experienced this self-consuming division process along with other Protestants.  But at the core, Anglicans have been repulsed by the ugliness of it all.  At the core, they have sought to retain the grand and robust beauty of holiness.  And in particular, they have cherished ancient liturgy as a way of doing so.  By centring on worship – liturgical worship, with a contemplative leaning, with a taste for the beautiful – Anglicans were less infatuated with attempts to shrink-wrap the mysteries of God and gospel in tidy, little, square verbal packages; like the Psalmist, the one thing they desired, the one thing they sought above all others was the beautiful holiness of God.  If the locus of constricting religion is in books, the locus of Anglican religion is in liturgy.  If the one is focused on argument and correctness, the other is focused on reverence and awe.” (Brian McLaren, ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Fresh?’)

Rowan Williams is as erudite as ever as he frames the project and purpose of the book.  I will keep this quote for future reference:

“Church is not primarily an event in which we do something, think something, feel something; it is being together in a situation where we trust God to do something and to change us – whether or not we notice it, let alone fully understand it… [Therefore in worship we must ] “manage this crossover from what we do to what God does; how to create an environment in which church can happen in the fullest sense, with the sacramental life flowing through as a sign and channel of God’s action.”

List of contributors:  Rowan Williams, Sue Wallace (Visions), Brian McLaren, Paige Blair (U2charist), Steve Croft, Ian Adams & Ian Mobsby (maybe & moot respectively), Stephen Cotterall, Michael Volland (Feig), Philip Roderick & Tess Holland (Contemplative Fire), Jonathan Clark, Richard Giles, Simon Rundell (Blesséd), Carl Turner, Karen Ward (Anglimergent & Church of the Apostles in Seattle), Phyllis Tickle, Stuart Burns.