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The Church in TransitionThe Journey of Existing Churches into the Emerging Culture
By Tim Conder
ZondervanCopyright © 2005 Tim Conder
All right reserved.
The Church in a Changing Landscape
EMERGING CULTURE, THE EMERGING CHURCH, AND CHURCH IN TRANSITION
Recently, a national newspaper ran a front-page story about a Christian leader who sought to distance himself somewhat from the religious right. He expressed some remorse that he'd chosen political sides earlier in his ministry. Today, in an era when some theological conservatives refuse to share the podium with any who disagree with their views of salvation and theology, this leader now opens his events to sponsorship and participation by the full spectrum of Christianity. "If I took sides in all these different divisive areas," he contends, "I would cut off a great part of the people that I really want to reach." In the article, he carefully explains how the term evangelism-presenting the good news of the hope God offers humanity -differs from evangelical-the label chosen by some theologically conservative Christians. This leader remains passionately committed to proclaiming the gospel, as he has done throughout his long career. Yet he recognizes that a rapidly changing culture demands new approaches to ministry.
Who is this prominent leader? Perhaps an emerging church or post-evangelical voice such as Brian McLaren? Or a social activist such as Jim Wallis? No. This article was about Billy Graham.
Although Billy Graham's goal to spread the good news has not changed over the last half century, his ministry now exhibits relaxed associations and shifts of method. Graham's subtle adjustments reflect dramatic changes in our culture during this timespan. Billy Graham recognizes that we live in an exciting time of transition and adaptation, where dominant worldviews, philosophies, and even theologies are either yielding or at least making room for a new era. This time of transition into a new cultural era has great implications-both opportunities and challenges-for Christianity and the church.
THE SIGNS OF CHANGE: THE EMERGING CULTURE
One of my neighbors recently stopped in for a long cup of coffee. As often happens, our conversation turned comfortably toward spirituality and religion. He was raised in the church, yet has often told me of his deep concerns about institutional Christianity. He and his wife and two children are all quite engaged spiritually, and he leads a weekly prayer and meditation group for teenagers in his home. Their family is very involved in local social issues, as well as hunger relief projects around the world. He and I share many of the same values and dreams for our community. And my wife, Mimi, and I have been influenced and motivated by their holistic vision of childrearing. He told me he'd be supportive if his children chose, as he put it, "to follow the teachings of Jesus." But he added that any future forays into Christian community for him or his wife would have to differ greatly from the doctrinal inflexibility and relentless guilt that characterized their childhood church experiences. Despite the pain that surrounds his own church experience and his own interest in Buddhist spirituality, this friend continually encourages friends to attend-and also tries to make community connections for-a Christian community I help lead.
My friend's perspective reveals a deep distrust of institutional Christianity and a gentle rejection of the Christian story as the sole resource for truth and meaning. He and his family are open to a diversity of perspectives and relationships. In reaction to our highly individualized society (dominated by individual rights and consumerism), his family exhibits a strong yearning for community. Holism and social activism take prominent roles in their perspectives and family expectations.
The array of values represented by my friend (community oriented, spiritually seeking, politically active, and open to Christianity but suspicious of the institutional church) demonstrates many of the impulses of a new, emerging culture. Social scientists believe the primary worldview of the last several centuries is yielding to a new worldview and culture. The American consciousness is no longer dominated by a Christian consensus on morality and truth. We're moving from a culture with a single dominant story (the Judeo-Christian metanarrative) to a more heterogeneous "post-Christian" society characterized by numerous, competing stories and rivaling views on ethics and truth.
While interest in spirituality remains high, persons in this emerging culture look to a variety of sources for spiritual meaning. Their spiritual searches often come with a wide range of prejudices (some accurate, others less so) about historical and institutional Christianity. Sadly, rather than seeing the church as the light of the world, many people in the emerging culture see the church primarily in terms of its grave moral inadequacies.
This emerging culture is shaped by a philosophy known as postmodernism, which encourages the pursuit of truth along new avenues of inquiry. According to theologian John Franke, postmodernity interprets truth and reality with predispositions of "finitude" and "suspicion." The postmodern mindset tends to reject global, one-size-fits-all-communities-and-contexts explanations of truth. Since the human ability to know truth is finite, postmodern thinkers tend to be wary of any person or institution that offers or demands a universal and infinite view, suspecting such perspectives are often rooted in a desire to control, manipulate, or even do violence to others.
Postmodernism also explains some of the impulses of this emerging culture. Emerging culture persons prefer spiritual worldviews to the mechanistic and scientific explanations of the previous age's modernism. Though individualism remains a hallmark of American society, in the emerging culture the yearning for community is growing, as community experiences are viewed as a source of truth. The individual objectivity of modernism is yielding to a postmodern subjectivity. The postmodern world is one of local communities, contexts, and explanations. It's a world in which experience can trump objectivity and mystery is more comfortable and trustworthy than certainty.
Many see this time of cultural change primarily as a threat to the Christian church. While I believe the growth of the emerging culture requires changes in the church's thinking and practice, I also believe the emerging culture offers a great opportunity for the church to rediscover some of its historical roots and escape some of its contemporary ruts. As we will see, this culture's greater openness and appreciation of mystery can encourage us to embrace our finitude and become more committed to worship an infinite God. It can motivate us to seek God and express the gospel more holistically. We may listen for God's voice in our experiences, with our intuition, through contemplative practices, and from the artistic gifts and experiences of those in our communities. This alone can rescue our view and understanding of God from shallow affirmations and stale-even if they're true-propositions. The emerging culture opens doors of exploration and paths of faithfulness that excite and inspire me. I will make the case that great commitments to community and interdependence can allow us to experience God more fully and to reflect more accurately the character of God within culture and creation.
The emerging culture will bring new perils. Any study of the church's journey through history reveals that the dominant cultural perspectives of any era inevitably produce accommodations and contaminations in our understanding and communication of God's character and works. The medieval world shaped a church with mystical superstitions and political entanglements that led to the manipulation and control of an uneducated laity by corrupt elements of the church. The modern world patronized methods of "scientific" biblical interpretation that defanged the Bible of its mystical power and steered our worship toward an overreliance on cognitive study and debate. We should expect challenges similar in weight and threat in the postmodern, emerging culture.
Concerns about the unknown threats the emerging culture may bring for the church can paralyze us. During my more than 20 years of leading cross-cultural international projects with both students and adults, I've always taught that the dangers we face on a daily basis within the comforts of our own culture are often equal to or worse than the dangers of a new environment. Driving a car every day is far more dangerous than the possibility that a black mamba is hidden in a bush and waiting to strike you while you're traveling in Africa. But we fear the new perils more because our patterns of anticipation and reflexes of defensiveness against them have, by definition, not formed into habit.
The postmodern culture does pose certain threats and challenges to the gospel, but I believe we've become numb and even casual toward the threats to the gospel that currently exist in our familiar culture. As I hope to demonstrate, in some cases we've codified and blessed some of these threats in the life of the church. For these reasons, I eagerly embrace the church's journey into the emerging culture.
AN EARNEST JOURNEY: THE EMERGING CHURCH
In the midst of this time of cultural transition, a new expression of Christian community is taking shape, one that many call "the emerging church." The emerging church has garnered rising media coverage and public attention in recent years-enough to launch conferences and publishing lines, inspire a growing number of excited devotees, motivate curious leaders seeking to understand its attractions and replicate its model, and galvanize a growing critique and concern. Since it has been my privilege to be a part of these conversations for more than a decade, it's only fair that I share some of my own thoughts and prejudices about the emerging church.
The first question that is typically posed about this new movement surrounds its definition: What is the emerging church? While the desire for a definition is understandable, it's the wrong place to start. In many ways the emerging church defies definition. That is part of its allure for some-and its perceived threat for others.
Andrew Jones is a poet/blogger laureate of the emerging church, and his blog has been a consistent voice of its values and passions. He offered this response when a reader asked him to define the emerging church:
I have tried to define it and have failed miserably. My apologies. It may be of some console for you to know that no one else has succeeded in defining it, and some of us have been at it a long time. Maybe that is okay. People in the emerging culture do not really want or need such a definition. And some of us are hesitant to give one, because behind the practices and models of emerging church lies a radically different mindset, value system, and worldview.
Andrew's response is wise and in no way evasive. It simply reveals the significant change in perspective that characterizes the emerging culture. The modern world saw definitions as the beginning point for inquiry and understanding. The postmodern world, with its suspicion of universal definitions, rejects this starting point. One can work endlessly to capture the emerging church in a definition and miss the whole point. Nonetheless, Andrew's reply is helpful in getting a sense of the emerging church and its identity.
One reason the emerging church defies definition is because the churches that embrace this label are not monolithic. There are huge diversities in style, organization, theology, and ministry practice among emerging churches. At a recent national conference for the emergent movement, I was in the hotel lounge listening to a conversation among some musicians from an emerging church. Although they appreciated the music at the event, they were quite certain this style of music wouldn't fit well into their own context. And the differences go beyond artistic style. As I've visited various emerging church settings, I've seen a wide range of perspectives on the role of women in the church, reliance on historic theological systems, political leanings, the understanding and practice of the sacraments, church organization, and so much more.
Clearly, the diversity one finds among emerging churches precludes simple generalizations. We should expect that some emerging churches might cross the boundaries of wisdom, propriety, and orthodoxy. We should expect others to find missional paths in the emerging culture that rightfully challenge the ministry trajectory of existing churches. We should also anticipate significant differences among various emerging congregations, as well as areas of surprising continuities with the historic church and more established congregations.
The diversity within the emergent movement also means there is no single model for existing churches to replicate in seeking to transition into emerging culture ministry. Surely existing congregations can learn much from emerging congregations. But there is no single pattern or "system" for a church to follow to minister effectively in our changing culture. Different contexts will require different ministry expressions.
Growing up in North Carolina, I was a huge fan of Coach Dean Smith and his basketball teams at the University of North Carolina. I remember how his familiar nasal twang would bristle in postgame interviews when he was asked about "the Carolina system." His answer was always some version of the following: North Carolina did not have a "system." The players were not locked into some stiff framework that prevented creativity and demanded rote responses to specific game situations. Basketball has far too much complexity for such a method to succeed. Instead, there was a philosophy of play-oriented around principles of effort, unselfishness, and smart decision-making-that was employed creatively within the infinite number of possibilities in any college basketball game.
Coach Smith's retort offers a helpful direction in understanding the emerging church. There is no single model for the theology and practices followed by all emerging churches. But, as Andrew Jones has suggested, the mindsets, values, and perspectives that characterize emerging churches differ from the more systemic and doctrinal approaches of most existing, modern churches.
The emerging church seeks to be an authentic contextualization of the gospel within the values and characteristics of postmodern culture. Therefore, it envisions and expresses Christianity primarily as a way of life, rather than an adherence to a doctrinal system or organizational pattern. This doesn't mean the emerging church is devoid of doctrinal affirmations or structure, but the theological systems or specific ministry models are not the defining factors. Instead, emerging churches are committed to a "rule of life" that includes:
The pursuit of the gospel expressed and explained in community
A passion for living out the values of Jesus' kingdom in the present
Comfort with mystery and uncertainty
A spiritual holism that calls forth a radical and comprehensive discipleship
A reading of Scripture that intersects with local stories and contexts
An experiential approach to both worship and the pursuit of truth
A ministry that honors the beauty of God's creation and the creative spirit found in humanity
Perhaps most of all, the emerging church is a missional church. By "missional," I mean that the emerging church seeks to be a community that embodies and supports God's mission of establishing a present and future redemptive kingdom.
Excerpted from The Church in Transition by Tim Conder Copyright © 2005 by Tim Conder. Excerpted by permission.
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