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Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

by Eddie Gibbs, Ryan K. Bolger
Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

by Eddie Gibbs, Ryan K. Bolger


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The "emerging church" movement is perhaps the most significant church trend of our day. The emerging church offers and encourages a new way of doing and being the church. While it largely resonates with an eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old audience--the first fully postmodern generation--it is also gaining popularity with older Christians and encompasses a broad array of traditional and contemporary churches. Emerging Churches explores this movement and provides insight into its success.

Filled with the latest research and interesting, anecdotal testimonies from those on the cutting edge of ministry, this book provides pastors, church leaders, and interested readers with an insightful glimpse into the thriving churches of today--and tomorrow.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781441200488
Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 346
File size: 630 KB

About the Author

Eddie Gibbs (B.D., London University; D.Min., Fuller Theological Seminary) is the Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed ChurchNext, winner of a Christianity Today book award.

Ryan K. Bolger (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of church in contemporary culture at the School of Intercultural Studies and academic director of the master of arts program in global leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Read an Excerpt


By Eddie Gibbs Ryan K. Bolger

Baker Academic

Copyright © 2005 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8010-2715-2

Chapter One

A Brief Look at Culture

There is a lot of money for the postmodern game. Anything can be sponsored and fed money to. The modern church will pump money into church planting, books, and movies. But the sun burns brightest before it sets. They are trying to reach young people. However, they will realize that they were wasting their money and walk away. After this, there will be people who apply the gospel in postmodern cultures. Spencer Burke, Newport Beach, CA

Churches in the United Kingdom and the United States seriously underestimate the need for cross-cultural training for those in their respective congregations. Consequently, churches misread the culture, thereby undermining the church's overall mission. While we recognize the urgency of the situation, we are filled with hope by communities that are discovering culturally appropriate church practices. Furthermore, senior leaders in traditional denominations have also recognized the great need of our times, and they look to emerging churches as signs of the future. Before examining these emerging churches in the next chapter, we address why cultural study is so critical for the Western church today anddiscuss the differences between British and American culture.

Why Must the Western Church Today Study Culture?

The study of culture is a highly significant issue that addresses the relationship among Christ, the gospel, the church, and culture. For many years, the standard textbook on this issue was H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. In recent years, Niebuhr's work has come under severe criticism. Rodney Clapp comments, "Christ and Culture was the creature of a time when few Christians could conceive of the church as itself a culture." This raises the missional question as to whether the church exists simply as a subculture or a counterculture or whether it can become truly cross-cultural in the sense of crossing into the broader culture through proclaiming the good news within that cultural context.

There has been a great deal of debate in recent decades over the relationship between the gospel and culture. However, the relationship between the church and culture has not been given the same attention, at least in those parts of the world where Christendom prevailed. There is now a growing realization that churches in the West face a missional challenge, one that is increasingly cross-cultural in nature. This chasm widens as the mainstream culture diverts from its spiritual heritage and society becomes increasingly pluralistic. The following points identify key reasons why the church must seriously study culture.

Because of the Incarnation

Those who call themselves Christian must take seriously the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He took on our culture and our practices; he became one of us. He participated in the local life of the Jews in all their cultural variety. He made himself accessible. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally, 'pitched his tent'] among us" (John 1:14 NIV). As Jesus did, we must immerse ourselves in the local cultures of our time. As Jesus did, we must provide a critique, but that evaluation must come from within rather than be imposed from outside the cultural context.

Because Cultural Understanding Has Always Been Essential to Good Mission Practice

Questions regarding the relationship between church and culture are critical to the mission of the church. Faithful mission practice requires an understanding of the culture in which one is serving. Historically, discerning missionaries have engaged the culture, seeking to communicate the gospel in indigenous forms while remaining faithful to Scripture. Unfortunately, in the West, we often make the mistake of giving culture short shrift, convinced that we understand the various cultures within Western countries.

The church must recognize that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution and that nineteenth-century (or older) forms of church do not communicate clearly to twenty-first-century cultures. A major transformation in the way the church understands culture must occur for the church to negotiate the changed ministry environment of the twenty-first century. The church is a modern institution in a postmodern world, a fact that is often widely overlooked. The church must embody the gospel within the culture of postmodernity for the Western church to survive the twenty-first century.

Because Christendom and Modernity Are in Rapid Decline

Since the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in AD 313 until approximately the midpoint of the twentieth century, the church occupied a central position within Western societies. This extensive period is referred to as Christendom, during which the church provided both stability and security as a key social institution. A more recent cultural and social element was the emergence of modernity. It began prior to the Renaissance and survived until it too began to fall apart in the twentieth century. Whereas Christendom provided institutional confidence, modernity provided an epistemological certainty based on foundationalism.

Since the 1950s, two cultural shifts affected the whole of society, embroiling the church at the same time. The first is the transition from Christendom to post-Christendom, with the latter exemplified by pluralism and a radical relativism. Religion is understood in terms of its sociological and psychological significance, discounting any claims to divine revelation and absolute truth. Furthermore, the church as an institution has lost its privileged position and increasingly occupies a place on the margins of society alongside other recreational and non-profit organizations.

The second is the transition from modernity to postmodernity. This shift represents a challenge to the main assertions of modernity, with its pursuit of order, the loss of tradition, and the separation of the different spheres of reality, expressed, for example, in the separation of the sacred and the profane at every level. More often than not, the church has found itself taking the side of modernity, defending its project against all viewpoints.

The combined impact of the challenges to Christendom and modernity has profound implications for the church, the nature of its ministry, mission in the postmodern world, and the ways in which the next generation of leaders needs to be equipped for these new challenges. In response, churches can live in denial, set up a protective perimeter that they will defend against all they define as outsiders, or venture forth in mission.

Because the West Is in the Midst of Huge Cultural Shifts

When a culture is static, as the West was for many years, an understanding of outside culture is not as critical. The culture one imbibed as a baby often lasted a lifetime, and with church culture, the time span was far greater. In a time of immense cultural change, however, the church's ignorance of the wider culture becomes problematic. Due to its cultural entrenchment, the church no longer relates to the surrounding culture, hence its increasing marginalization and perceived irrelevance.

What are these cultural changes that have contributed to the marginalization of the church? First, we are in the midst of a shift from modernity to postmodernity, with the caveats explained above. Second, we are embroiled in a shift from Westernization to globalization. Third, we are engaged in a communication revolution, as we shift from a print culture to an electronic-based culture. Fourth, we are in the midst of a dramatic shift in our economic mode of production, as we transition from national and industrial-based economies to economies that are international, information based, and consumer driven. Fifth, we are on the verge of significant breakthroughs in understanding the human at a biological level. Sixth, we are seeing a convergence of science and religion that has not been seen in centuries.

Any one of these shifts requires significant theological reflection. Pastoral leaders must listen carefully to culture and be prepared to abandon cherished church forms if necessary. To pastor missionally, church leaders must understand the cultural changes that have occurred outside its doors. For the church to be able to situate itself in culture, an understanding of these social processes must be pursued.

Because the Church Is in Decline

Both in the U.K. and the U.S., the decline of the major traditional denominations has been well documented. This decline began in the mid-1960s and continues unabated in most cases to the present time. The reported weekly church attendance in the U.S. is 40 percent, while in the U.K. it is 8 percent. This figure includes all traditions-Anglican, Catholic, and so-called free churches. The decline in church attendance has been occurring for several decades longer in the U.K., which means that churches, new and old, are now seeking to reestablish contact with people three or four generations removed. In the U.S., the bulk of ministry to the "unchurched" is more accurately described as reaching out to welcome back the "previously churched." However, the picture is not rosy for the U.S. either. Even though the U.S. boasts higher figures (a reported 40 percent of the population since World War II), it may be an exaggerated number based on intentions rather than on actions, possibly reducing the number 15 to 20 percent. In addition, as one moves to blue states, as opposed to red states, and interviews the younger generations, the number of people attending church approaches the British counterpart.

Because the Majority of Current Church Practices Are Cultural Accommodations to a Society That No Longer Exists

Just as it is important to understand the culture at large, today's Christians must also understand the culture that exists inside the church's doors. Much of what we understand as historical church practices is simply cultural adaptations that occurred at other times and places in church history. The church must "de-absolutize" many of its sacred cows in order to communicate afresh the good news to a new world.

The Protestant Reformation created a church that was closely aligned with the newly literate culture. Linear progression of thought, highly reasoned exegesis, and expository preaching illustrated the new culture's focus on the written word. According to different timetables and different degrees in the various traditions, the church removed the symbolic, the mystical, and the experiential to make a space for logical and linear ways of thinking and living. Church leaders must be aware of the ways in which the church has venerated written culture at the expense of oral, aural, and visual worlds.

Because the Primary Mode and Style of Communication in Western Culture Have Changed

Faithful mission practice requires an understanding of the language of culture. Unfortunately, the church has been slow to adopt new communication technologies. Far from being faddish, these technologies are the very essence of how people today construct their worlds. It is here that the church may be most out of step with culture. The Reformation contextualized the gospel for the print era, but there has been no corresponding reformation to bring the gospel to our image-based era. The church continues to communicate a verbal, linear, and abstract message to a culture whose primary language consists of sound, visual images, and experience, in addition to words. Meaningful activity assumes the convergence of sound, sight, and touch through activities, rituals, and stories. Current patterns and styles of preaching communicate with diminishing impact. Pastors must understand the comprehensive nature of language to be heard by the culture.

Because a New Culture Means That New Organizational Structures Are Required

What organizational structures did modernity hand to today's church leaders and members? During the twentieth century, the church, already hierarchical and rationalized, became even more so as it mimicked Henry Ford's hierarchical, assembly-line construction to maximize productivity, resulting in dehumanization and disempowerment. As the twentieth century progressed, characteristics of a McDonaldized society reigned inside newer forms of church as well. It does not take long to identify the predictable, the calculated, the efficient, and the controlling aspects of McDonald's that are mirrored in today's church. As church leaders in the Western world recognize their role as missionaries, they must rethink many of the inherited ways of administering church in our times.

Because Boomers Are the Last Generation That Is Happy with Modern Churches

The wave of Boomer returnees to church had no parallel in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Experience in those countries suggests that the longer emerging generations remain outside the church the less likely it is that they will return. Furthermore, they are disillusioned with institutionalism and see the church itself as an obstacle to faith. Many churches fail to live out the faith they profess, at least in the estimation of those who taunt them. Consequently, postmodern generations have simply chosen to ignore the organized church as irrelevant to their spiritual quest.

Church leaders often reduce the postmodern shift to that of a generation gap. To be fair, there is benefit to generational theory, even though it tends to oversimplify complex issues. For many cultural theorists, the modern period ended in the U.S. in the 1950s. In the U.S., the Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, was the last generation formed primarily during the cultural period of modernity. As an example of their standardized religious approach, many Boomer churches removed the last remaining symbols, images, and rituals from the church as they built new suburban churches that reflected the corporate culture of affluent functionality. They built churches for one cultural subtype of Boomer, the suburban consumer of religion who is also a corporate achiever in his or her vocational life. This corresponded to a gospel of personal fulfillment and megachurch identification.

Conversely, sociological insights concerning Gen-Xers reveal that when the mystery, the visual, the ritual, the touch, and the beauty are removed, little is left. Thus, the modern church of their Boomer parents does not satisfy the yearnings of the under-forties, and that is why Gen-Xers increasingly participate in churches with pre-Reformation histories. Moreover, new forms of churches have restored an atmosphere of mystery and awe enhanced by the use of incense, candles, and prayer rituals. Local church leaders must seek to communicate the Christian message using ritual and the five senses to lead effectively in the twenty-first century.

Generational analysis may be helpful in revealing that Boomers are the last generation that may be satisfied with a modern church service that is linear, word based, and abstract, whereas Gen-Xers desire rituals, visuals, and touch. However, even in a brief treatment, there are many exceptions to these rules. Looking at Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millenials has done much more harm than good for those churches that believe the church's main problem is a generational one. Generational issues are imbedded in the much deeper cultural and philosophical shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Because of the Increasing Appeal of Spirituality Derived from Other Religions

A drastic falling away from institutional Christianity should not be seen as conclusive evidence of the triumph of secularization. Spirituality, however vaguely defined, is still prevalent, with indications that it has assumed greater significance in recent years. Popular spirituality surfaced to an unprecedented degree with the death of Princess Diana and the outpouring of grief and prayers from the crowds gathered outside Westminster Abbey that flooded through the open doors of the church to overwhelm the official ceremony inside. On both sides of the Atlantic, the segment of the population that sees reality holistically and spiritually presents a major challenge. Such people are the cultural creatives within society.

In reaction to the Western church's identification with the rationalism of modernity, a significant number of believers are either practicing a smorgasbord form of spirituality or abandoning the Christian faith entirely. They are creating Westernized forms of historic religion that provide immediate access to transcendental reality, offer the means to self-realization, and deemphasize self-discipline and the place of legitimate suffering. The church is sending spiritually minded people to strive after other religions because it has become secularized.


Excerpted from EMERGING CHURCHES by Eddie Gibbs Ryan K. Bolger Copyright © 2005 by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Excerpted by permission.
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