God’s Next Big Thing: Discovering the Future Church by Scott Cowdell

(John Garrett Publishing; Melbourne, 2004)

Scott Cowdell will supervise my guided reading project, starting next week, which was the original motivation for reading this book -what a blessing!  Great writing, sharp intellect and deeply spiritual reflections engaging both head and heart – I am so excited about the academic year which is about to start!!!

God’s Next Big Thing is divided into two parts.  The first global/Australian cultural analysis is locating the church in the post-modern era and was particularly exciting for me with it’s strong critique of capitalist modes of being as a core driver of western culture’s evolution.  Cowdell favours a definition of post-modernity as an hyper-extension of the modern era which draws this out more clearly.  I still think postmodernism is a new epoch of western culture, but I valued being able to chart it’s economic heritage.

Included in part one is a fabulous chapter on the emerging church where, as a high-churchman, Cowdell argues for an emerging church that is mystical, mature and militant (by which he means prophetic engagement with the wider world).  I particularly appreciated his depiction of the immature church that is so prevalent today – insecure, defensive with an addictive & co-dependent personality.  It reinforced my own image of the Western Church being in denial about it’s midlife crisis.  Mostly however, it was just so exciting to read a Christian from a different ‘tradition’ to my own, reaching the same conclusions by a different path.  Surely a sign that God is in this ‘next big thing’.

The second part of the book is devoted to suggestions for the way forward in which he addresses liturgy; the lay vocation of the Church; and organised religion (rejecting institutionalism and managerialism in the Church).  Whilst I don’t share Cowdell’s passion for the defined Liturgical Movement tradition from which he comes, I do share his conclusions on the need for depth, mystery and beauty in our worship as a balm to the postmodern soul.  I also agree with his theology of the laity as having a ‘vocation’ that is ‘serving at an alter in the world’ – called to be disciples  in whatever life situation they find themselves, as opposed to devoting their service to the maintenance of religion.  His discussion of lay presidency is insightful in this regard.  His discussion on sexuality is really interesting!

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.

Ian Mobsby, The Becoming of G-d

(YTC Press: UK: 2008)

I LOVE this book!  Ian Mobsby writes more of my own thoughts than anyone else I have ever read.  It is so exciting to know someone whose been travelling the same road totally separately and discovering very similar things along the way.  Indeed, this is not just a phenomena specific to me, but something  Ian writes is happening all over the world in emerging church communities – a rediscovery of the God who is Trinity to lead us into renewed ways of being church, doing theology, living a response to the bible, prayer, mission and so on!

God who is Trinity draws us into knowing God through our lived experience rather than a set of objectified facts.   God fills our imagination with the possibilities for wholeness in the world, as God fills our hearts with Love and redeems our minds by Grace.  This is theology that I can get excited about!

In outlining his own vision of the Trinity draws on an incredibly diverse range of theological thinkers:  Walter Bruggemann, Pete Rollins, Karl Barth, Brian Edgar, The Cappadocian Fathers and Mothers, Kester Brewin, Paul Tillich and Stuart Murray.  Ian’s main concern however, is to connect our transformational experiences of God to a transformational life.  “The decline experienced by the Western Church through-out the period of modernity and now in post-modernity, is due in the main to an inedequate theism.  Conceptions of God as one’s best friend, or as excessively immanent or transcendent, are the result of a faiture to accept the validity of, and move beyond, the critique of the enlightenment emancipators.” (p.35)  The book reviews models of church; challenges of mission in post-modernity; contextual theology; and the challenge of living communally, in light of a replenished encounter with God.

In summing up, Ian Mobsby’s words sum up the reason why I am setting aside 2011 to study:  “Theology is the place where God speaks into human discourse, and that as we do mission, it point people to the divine.  Religious truth is that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it.  In worship and mission we seek to contemplate God, who in turn touches and communicates with humanity.  If Church is truly modeled on this approach, it will meet deeply with contemporary culture” (p. 143).  Amen!

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to see as the mystics see

(2009:  John Garratt Publishing:  Melbourne)

The Naked Now reveals why the Emerging Church Movement is a stunning synchronistic expression of previously divergent traditions of church and spiritual practise.  Rohr engages with the issues of dualism, fundamentalism, institutionalism and spiritless religion which all resonates strongly with the concerns of post-modern Christians.  Richard draws deeply from his own links to history as a North American Franciscan Monk but  with fresh voice for the world in which he lives today.  Rohr offers a vision of contemplation, or contemplative prayer, which is deeply attractive to anyone yearning for a real spiritual encounter with life, God, the universe, themselves and others!

Here’s a taster:

“The word ‘prayer’ has often been trivailised by making it into a way of getting what you want.  But in this book, I use ‘prayer’ as the umbrella word for any interior journeys or practises that allow you to experience faith, hope, and love within yourself. It is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven.  It is much more like practising heaven now.”

If you want to read more of Richard Rohr go to the Center for Action and Contemplation:  http://www.cacradicalgrace.org