Sunday, April 27, 2014

EMERGENT CHURCH

The 'emergent church' is essentially the postmodern church. It simply challenges modernistic assumptions found in today's global Church, and attempts to allow Christianity to function in a more 'organic' way - free from these assumptions (but they don't tend to define or limit what this might mean). It is not primarily about defining any new mind sets or ways of looking at things. It doesn't even necessarily condemn the modernism (or bondage-to-modernism) that it challenges. Many emergent churches begin to function and express themselves in a way which appears totally foreign to us modernistic Christians - it can seem jarring, bizarre, and divisive. But their insistence of questioning (rather than answering) makes it impossible to decide on a definition of what the emergent church thinks or does (such defining is, after all, a modernistic aim!)

I've read lots about the 'emergent church' and have wholeheartedly rejected it (for lots of 'good reasons') in the past. But I've never seriously listened to any of its proponents, which is all they want us to do. The other day I started doing just that, and I now have mixed feelings, having asked some novel questions about my belief system. This article will not attempt the impossible task of defining the 'emergent church' and what's right/wrong with it! Instead I'll just describe the conclusions I have arrived at about my own belief system. Most of it has been helpfully influenced by the emergent thinking, but the last two paragraphs in particular describe the conflict I have with their excess focus on their own novel questions.

I'm really interested in other people's experiences and opinions of the 'emergent church' or post-modern concepts. We have talked about it lots in previous posts but I think it would be worth summarising your views in the comments below, as well as any new insights :)

Christianity is primarily about a heart-resounding with God's glory.

The Holy Spirit gives rebirth which frees our hearts to experience its greatest enjoyment in the expression of God's glory. We begin to focus on Christ as a personal embodiment of all-important beauty. We submit the importance of our own identity (worldview, meaning, purpose, worth, validity, definition, etc), to the importance of God's glory being expressed and enjoyed. The mind of Christ is that He Himself did all this, emptied Himself for the sake of God's glory - and so this is what union with Christ means (death to self, rising to God). But the full implications of our new heart desires and union with Christ are only realised as the heart perceives the glory of God so that it CAN enjoy it - and this glory is not fully expressed in this life, and is certainly not accurately or fully perceived by us.

This heart-resounding God focus minimises the importance of modernistic 'pillars'.

First, we can be honest about the insecurities of our identity - admit doubts and failings, accept challenges that shake the foundation of what holds us together. We won't react with emotion or avoidance or aggression to the things (or the people) that expose our insecurities or the flaws in our worldview. Instead we will embrace all of this! At worst, these things do not threaten what is of ultimate importance to us (the expression and enjoyment of God's glory), and the deep cracks in our identity and worldview - our doubts and weakness and confusion - actually identify us with Christ more (who went through the same in His sufferings). Also such deep honesty about ourselves frees us to truly empathise with others, including how they see us (in all our flaws). And often it will enable us to work toward a better perception and enjoyment of God's glory together.

Second, we will be able to escape the 'death drive' of having distant goals that are meant to fulfil us, but which require sacrificing too much in order to have any chance of attaining it. The world is rife with the problems caused when people sacrifice holiness, relationship with others, or peace with God for these aims. And extra problems are created merely by the unattainment of these goals - unhappiness, inability to enjoy the present, and lying to ourselves and/or others (either keeping this goal secret, or keeping the ongoing failure secret). Even good goals - holiness, spirituality, good works, closeness to God - can be wrongly persued as a 'death drive', leading to these problems. We can avoid the sacrifice required, AND avoid the problems associated with wanting but never attaining to such goals, because what is of ultimate importance to us is the enjoyment of the expression of God's glory. This glory is both present AND future, and besides the death-drive's self-focussed fulfilment has been submitted to God's glory as part of our identity. We are free to admit our failings and confusion over our goals because these are not primary.

Third, we will not insist on any particular cognitive knowledge of God as necessary or important in a blanket sense (such as a creed). What is important is the heart change that God brings, and the subsequent heart-resounding and enjoyment of the holistic expression of the glory of God. We will direct our attention to whatever that is required to woo the heart, and to satisfy the heart with the expression of God's glory - trusting God to use our efforts as He sees fit, and to cover our flawed perception and expression of Him. We will find unity in this common heart-resounding faith (which is often expressed in different doctrine, because no one has found the perfect full cognitive expression of it), rather than demanding exact doctrinal sameness. And we will accept that disagreement is part of the process of working together to improve our perception of the expression of God's glory.

There is danger in focussing on this minimisation, instead of God's glory.

Identity, goals, and cognitive knowledge are all still very important to God! While they do not define our ultimate aim or enjoyment, they are very helpful, and God mandates their use in the service of His glory and our enjoyment of it. Heart change is not defined by perception of God's glory, but by enjoyment of His glory - nevertheless, such enjoyment IS revealed as perception occurs. Likewise, perception is not defined as cognitive knowledge, but cognitive knowledge is one way to perceive - and it is required in some measure to talk about God, which is one of the main ways God intends us to woo hearts and help OTHERS to perceive! So, we will continue with cognitive beliefs and expressions, and attempt to improve them together, and use them as accurately as possible for the goal of enjoying God's glory, trusting God's grace to cover our flaws and fill the message with spiritual life. We will submit it all to God through union with Christ, and seek deep honesty about our flaws and doubts and insecurities, focussing on corporate love and enjoyment of God's glory together even when cognitive experience of this isn't the same, and encourage true empathy with others (which includes seeing ourselves as they see us, with all our flaws).

We also need to be careful to continue to aim for the right things - union and love of Christ, NOT merely being shocked out of our faulty modernistic thought system. If this is all that happens, we have failed drastically. We need to remember that everything needs tailoring to context - we do whatever is required to help each other progress in our perception and enjoyment of God's glory. Sometimes our faulty cognitive expression is NOT helpful to that person at that time. Often, in the process of communication, our perception of God's glory is lost on the person, and their disagreement is actually an unwitting affirmation that they have the same faith as us and are looking for true perception of God's glory. Sometimes non-cognitive perception is most helpful, which may require being shocked out of a modernistic approach to God. One cannot mandate a particular approach, and I believe often the division caused by the drastic and new questions of the 'emergent church' are simply not worth the benefit (just like modernistic arguments about correct doctrine are often not worth the benefit).

Finally, we need to be vigilant and not let the current OR emerging pagan culture corrupt the Church's pure and contrasting message. This contrast is just as much against secular modernism as it is against secular post-modernism. We need to maintain a delight in old and fixed things (such as God), rather than undue fascination with what is new and novel and 'relevant'. And we need to be careful not to paint another false veneer of 'happy relevant honest challenge-resistant post-modernism' instead of 'happy secure cognitively-sound modernism'. Both are hypocrisy.

May God help us keep the ultimate aim of enjoying His glory in sight, and may He help us communicate clearly with others!

3 comments:

  1. Hi Josh.

    My own study of what is called "Emergent Church" has turned up as you hinted at a wide variety of good, bad and ugly. The good that I have found is the embrace of ways of knowing that accept a more holistic view of life - embrace of narrative, art, mystery, relational, acts of love without any expectation of payback, even liturgical expressions whereby the act of participation in say communion speaks more powerfully than any teaching about communion could. I think this is all wonderful and recaptures much of the heart of true Christianity that was perhaps better understood in older times and other traditions.

    Where I think its gone bad and ugly is as you suggest the embrace of novelty for novelty's sake, and worse, the use of post-modern or emerging church forms as simply the latest face of "church growth". This to me pollutes what God is trying to do through emerging church - bringing us back out of "industrial grade" and "consumer" christianity that has done so much damage to the reputation of the church into something that actually reflects the ways and heart of Christ.

    Why I think some people run off half-cocked with "emergent" church is they haven't necessarily yet asked themselves the deep enough questions - their theology is in one camp but their practices are in another - basic insecurity issues maybe? For me I just call myself someone who is trying to follow Christ - their are parts of Emerging Church I strongly like, parts I don't, just as there are parts of evangelicalism that I embrace and parts I don't, parts of pentecostalism I love, and parts I detest :), parts of Catholicism I've learned lots from etc.

    Thanks for bringing up the discussion.

    Clive

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  2. Jolly good summary of the emergent church and post-modernism. I too have been challenged by much of the good that they bring. I really like the commitment to honesty and how they see church as a safe place where people can get together to be honest with each and help each forward in their struggles (including doubts). Peter Rollins had some good points. He lead me to conclude that pretending that certain struggles or doubts are non-existent or rare is a dangerous type of church. For one it is quite simply deceptive and two it creates problems where the people who do doubt or struggle are somehow made to feel less part of fellowship when we should be embracing them when there are difficulties! It is not shameful to be public about our struggles, even Jesus was very public in His desperation and struggle when He cried out "Father, why have you forsaken Me?"! A key component of Jesus' struggles though was that He found refuge in God, EVEN in His doubts about His mission. So even though it is useful to share with other people, still our relationship with God can be of the type where we can voice our struggles and doubts to Him. That in itself is faith. A good example of this is the man who cried "I do believe; help my unbelief." It is when we admit our failings then rest and rely on Christ that we find Christ likeness and walk in His paths. David cried "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."
    Good news! When we are broken God will not despise us!

    I remembered James 5:16 this morning "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." Interesting that he talks about "healing". Somehow I do not think it means physical healing like God has judged them or something, but I think it is more cognitive and emotional healing that it is referring to. Maybe the exposure of brokenness is helpful and brings healing or consolidation to one's life. Why is this not done more in church? If it is done it seems to be done behind closed doors or kept hidden amongst an individual's thoughts.

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