January 20, 2006

talk from wednesday

Some of you were going to come with me on Wednesday and couldn't make it. A few others asked what I said and I know I mentioned that I would post something. It's been busy and I just kept forgetting to. Below is what I wrote out a couple days before the meeting. I left out and added some stuff in different areas but it's pretty much what I said. There were fantastic questions afterwards. I'll try to relay some of that later if I can. Your critique is welcome. Anyways, here it is:

The Emerging Church: A Brief Explanation and Definition
Jason Evans 01/18/06

First, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to come here today to meet with you. I’ve been asked to come speak with you about the emerging church today. I am not interested in defending or condemning the emerging church. I am convinced that the emerging church is a response, a reaction to things both social and spiritual. Because of that I will do my best today to offer you a definition of the emerging church and an explanation for the emerging church based on my personal experience. There is no way for us to cover all the territory necessary to give a comprehensive look at this issue, but I’ll do my best to give you a glimpse, allowing us time to talk about this together afterwards-which may prove more helpful.

To begin, it is my belief that the emerging church is a response to the major shifts we have seen in our culture within the last several decades that are most often spoken of in philosophical terms as “modernism” to “postmodernism”. In brief, the modern era defined truth by absolutes, the postmodern era defines truth by experience. We have moved from an understanding of reality with rigidity into an understanding of reality that is wrought with fluidity. Being a practitioner, I would like to quickly move away from the philosophical aspects of this and into some of the practical aspects of how the postmodern shift has affected us. I’m convinced that some of this-at least in the Western world-has to do with a few changes we saw in the 20th century; namely: changes in our collective understanding of community, the global village, and the shift away from the prominence of Christendom in our culture.

The 20th century brought about a major shift in how we understand “community” or “how we relate to each other”. Just think about the nuclear family in America. Every week I celebrate communion with a community of which my wife and I are the only members whose parents are still married. The concept of family has undergone a radical change within our society. No longer does the family symbolize things such as safety, security and devotion for most of us.

I’m not speaking from a Dobson-ian perspective of “family values”. Rather, I’m speaking from my experience that whether straight, gay, white, black, old, young, single or with a partner the dismemberment of the traditional formats in which we have found our connectedness in Western culture has had a profound effect on the way we think, feel, live and seek out new ways to have a semblance of community, family.

The Global Village
The Internet has forever changed how we understand the globe. One can have a conversation daily with a friend or client on the other side of the globe whenever they like. Simultaneously, we are more aware today than ever before the effect that our voracious consumption over the last several centuries has had in depleting the world of its resources while polluting our environment more and more at the same time. Our awareness of the world geographically, anthropologically and ecologically has heightened significantly.

My experience lends me to think that western culture, especially amongst younger adults, is moving more swiftly towards post-imperialistic considerations. The current war may lead us to believe otherwise but while I do not support these actions of violence it has brought an even keener awareness of the Eastern world-it’s people, media, geography and, yes, religion-to the West.

All of these issues, and a greater awareness of them, seem to be bringing about a shift in devotions. I can sum it up by relating to you something a thoughtful, young man said to me: “Jason,” he said emphatically, “Our parents have handed us a world that they have been trying to destroy for years. And now the world is to be handed to us to take care of and who can we look to for direction? The media lies to us, politicians lie to us and our parents lied to us when they said that they loved each other.”

Constantine has left the Building
The last major change in western culture I want to consider-and possibly one of the most important for what we are discussing today-is what is often referred to as post-Christendom. We live in a postmodern, as well as post-Christendom, world. The Church no longer has the authority it once did in society. This is not to say that our culture is post-Christian. In fact, we still live within a very spiritually aware society (even while being cynical of itself in this respect). But in the western world, the Churches basic narrative and ethic do not present themselves as applicable to our culture at large.

The emerging church is a response to these shifts in our society; sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes intuitively. It must also be noted that the emerging church is in a very evolutionary stage so it is difficult to identify much that will define it universally. But I think that what we have gone over so far will help us some.

A New Kind of Community
In response to the changes in how we relate to each other emerging churches attempt to nurture new kinds of community. Being in a post-Christendom culture a church building is not necessarily a normative social place for a person any longer. Emerging churches attempt to find new ways to utilize, possibly redeem, social space for spirituality. This is not to say that church buildings aren’t used. But since they are no longer sacred in the minds of people, emerging churches are using them, along with other social spaces as I said, in new ways to create environments where people can find a sense of belonging.

Holistic Discipleship
In response to the changes in our world the emerging church attempts to engage people in a kind discipleship that asks the person to consider how their faith affects their whole life. What we buy, what we eat, how we care for our bodies, how we think, how we treat others, how we create… all of these are themes to be considered in light of being a disciple of Christ.

Post-Christendom Missiology
In response to the changes in the Church’s influence over society the emerging church attempts to embrace a missional role within culture. Emerging churches engage and interpret culture in an effort to contextualize the Gospel in a culturally appropriate manner. Leslie Newbigin’s many books addressing this subject sparked much of the thought behind this approach.

As I said before, the emerging church is an intriguing phenomenon that still has a lot of room to grow and mature. Because of this it is hard to determine many defining characteristics. Others may have included a stronger sense of narrative theology coupled with a more central Christology but these are not universal as far as I can tell.

Distinguishing Emerging Churches from Emergent
In the North American context, there is one other distinguishing mark I would like to address. The emerging church has been popularized primarily through an organization called, Emergent. Incepted by author Brian McLaren along with several younger counterparts Emergent has been able to produce large-scale events and publish books that have brought positive and negative attention to the churches that fall into this loosely defined category.

The unfortunate aspect of this organization is their brilliance. In true North American form, they have done a splendid job of marketing themselves. While their intentions may be good it has assisted in casting a label that has swept across borders and defined something that is happening around the globe.

A Prophetic Instinct
The emerging church and Emergent are only a small aspect of something quite larger happening around the globe. It has taken on many different shapes and forms. I have been referring to this phenomenon as the prophetic instinct within Christ’s Body, the Church. At first glance, if you look at what has happened within the Church in South America and the UK for example you may see two different “movements.” But a closer look will expose the emergence of a new kind of faith communities committed to radical, holistic discipleship and working to interpret the Gospel within their own cultural context. Is this the emerging church? To think so may be a knee-jerk, colonialist reaction. I am convinced it is a prophetic instinct within Christ’s body calling us back to who we are to be in the world. Why not? This has been evident in our Story throughout history. Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Paul, Patrick, Francis, Martin Luther, Menno Simmons, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, etc., etc. All of these persons have called the people of God back to what it is to be the God’s people, the Church, in the world not just in word but in deed as well. My prayer is that this current rise will continue to carry on in this tradition.

Thank you.

Referenced/Recommended Reading
Post Christendom by Stuart Murray-Williams
Resident Aliens Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society by Leslie Newbigin
Missional Church by Darrell Guder et al
The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch
Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger
The Next Christendom by Phillip Jenkins
The Prodigal Project by Mike Riddell et al
A Churchless Faith by Alan Jamieson
Revolution by George Barna
A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren
The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

1 comment :

Ryan Lee Sharp said...

Good stuff. How'd it go?

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