A Primer on Emerging Church?

Thanks to Chris Erdman for these insights … (I must say the past four years has been a great ride for me in terms of re-entering the Bible and do some serious hard work theologically … side by side with an openness to “innovations” & “Improvisations” .. I love the “Jazz” metaphor … plus I feel not only am I not finished yet, I just got started!)

Well, understanding postmodernism is one thing, understanding the emerging church phenomenon may be another. There’s a good deal being written in emerging church circles that tends to be pretty silly…that is, untethered to anything substantial. It can be terribly fadish and experimental, which is not a bad thing so long as it is understood this way. Stanley Hauerwas (theologian from Duke) once remarked to his students who so quickly wanted to depart from the tradition: “you don’t know enough about the tradition in order to depart from it!” I think this can be true in emerging circles. Folks, disenchanted and disenfranchised with traditional Christianity haven’t done the hard work of understanding history and theology. Luther and Calvin were reformers who understood such things and were competent to challenge the errors of what had become of the tradition.

While I celebrate the new openness for the gospel that comes because of postmodernism’s questioning of Modernity, I am not a postmodernist. What I mean here is that postmodernism cracks open the church’s captivity to Modernity so that we can re-enter the Bible and do some good hard work theologically. In this sense I am a theological conservative. Memory of the tradition is vital, but I am also extremely open to innovation that “does jazz” on the tradition. As any good jazz musician knows you cannot improvise unless you “know your scales” and have rehearsed them over and over again. There is a “ground” necessary for good improvisation and experiment. There is much that tries to be music but is simply noise in my ears

I think understanding what the Lord is doing to birth new expressions of the kingdom today means understanding how we got here in the first place. In my mind, Lesslie Newbigin’s little book, Foolishness to the Greeks has pride of place. If you’re looking for a more expansive survey . . .

I’d recommend David Bosch’s, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (he does biblical and historical work and charts a course for missional renewal after Modernity).

Then you might want to understand how people critique the place the church has occupied in the last centuries. For an entry into this I’d suggest Willimon and Hauerwas’ book, Resident Aliens.

And finally, reading testimonies of the experiments in newness can give witness to emergence…but these experiments must not only be new and technological; they can also be experiments like Bonhoeffer’s little school for Confessing Church pastors in the 1930’s, George McLeod’s experiment in Iona, Scotland that began about the same time, Brother Roger of Taize’s experiment that began in the mid-1940’s, the Focolare movement that began around a Roman Catholic nun in France following the war, the Catholic Worker movement around Dorothy Day, and on and on…it would also be interesting to explore the monastic movements in the early church, and the organization around St. Benedict in the seventh century. All of these are expressions of Holy Spirit emergence at times when the church became to captive to the Powers. You see, emergence is not just happening among GenX and GenY, but has been happening whenever and wherever the Holy Spirit has seen captivity and has found some daring enough to try new forms of missional obedience. Among the GenX, etc. Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt are thoughtful,and I’d certainly add Tom Beaudoin’s book, Virtual Faith to the list. Len Sweet rings a hollow note to me and frankly I’m not exactly sure why. It may be that from all appearances he is merely a reporter on what he observers. He’s a very capable and entertaining reporter, to be sure, but he doesn’t seem to have have real and personal ties to a Christian community to which he is yielded…that is, he is apparently not deeply embedded inside living, local commuties and therefore while his reporting is interesting it doesn’t speak authentically to me.

As to other able interpreters who are writing today Alan Roxburgh and Darrell Guder would top my list. But there are many others who would be helpful too–Wendell Berry on economics and environment, George Lakoff on politics.

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