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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

a continued renewal...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Phil Johnson has posted an excellent article 'here', challenging those who self identify with the emerging church (EC) conversation/movement to project into the future and articulate goals and desires for where we would like to be. His challenge is that we must do this, lest we fall into a default position of creating further denominational fragmentation or worse.

Of the four possible future scenarios that Phil describes, the first one best reflects my hopes (though not restricted to 'Protestants' or existing church structures, for reasons that will, hopefully, become clear)...

One option is for the EC as a global movement to follow the broad social dynamics of other social movements from recent history like the civil rights movement and women's movement. In that general schema EC advocates will agitate for social and structural and attitudinal changes in existing church bodies...
For EC this is not an issue of canon law requiring reforms, but rather a renovation in theology, missions and praxis on the part of Protestant bodies. If this schema worked for EC then in the process of time new models of gatherings and congregations would appear and in positive reciprocal dialogue both EC and existing church bodies would collaborate. Existing bodies would absorb the needed changes (radical in many ways) and the need for EC would plateau and subside as Protestants navigate a new course for ministry and missions in the twenty-first century.

I think I gravitate towards this because I don't see the EC as a phenomena in itself, but as a continuation of what the Spirit of God has been doing in the Church for the last 40 years or so. I was having this conversation with a friend yesterday and it's much easier to chat about it than to put it into words, but I'll have a go anyway! My own church background is in what has been labelled the 'Charismatic Evangelical' tradition of the 'Renewal' movement. Now, while I can't claim to have done any extensive study of that movement, it seems to me that, beyond the rediscovery of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit (which is the public 'badge' of the renewal movement), God was actually doing something far more significant and important. The legacy of the renewal movement is the easing up or 'chilling out' of evangelical faith - what many who like their labels refer to as 'Open Evangelical' (itself closely related to or even feeding into what Dave Tomlinson called 'Post-Evangelical').

By this, I don't mean a 'watering' down of evangelical faith as our more conservative friends have accused us of, but a growing recognition that while our doctrinal statements and models may be helpful in the journey of discipleship, God is sovereign and is at work beyond them as well as through them. In short, he is not boxed off in the structures we create. This understanding does not reflect a move away from Biblical faith or the authority of Scripture, but is actually found continually on the pages of Scripture. Brian McLaren's excellent (though often publicly slated) book 'A Generous Orthodoxy' has been very helpful to me (and I know of others too) in working my way through to this viewpoint.

It is, of course, something that many have found (and continue to find) hard to swallow, and this has been the case for over 2,000 years! When Jesus offended the worshippers gathered in the synagogue in Luke 4, it was not because of his implicit claim to be the Messiah or the fact that he had chosen a passage from Isaiah that highlighted God's concern for justice and equality. The outrage that nearly cost him his life at that point was caused because he pointed out from the Scriptures how God was active outside of Israel, in the lives of Gentiles. In omitting to mention the second half of Isaiah 61:2 ("... and the day of vengeance of our God") Jesus was highlighting grace over and above judgement, and extended this grace to the Gentiles. Yahweh was not to be seen as the God of Israel only, but the God of the whole world; the Messiah had not come to save Israel only, but to save the entire world. It seems that the major mistake of the Church in Christendom has been to but barriers of control around this boundless grace of God again, such that, for example, we are now engaged in pointless arguments as to whether we can allow children who have not been confirmed to receive communion (which is, after all, a Sacrament - an outwardly visible sign of God's grace; so who are we to control it?)!

I'm glad to have been a part of the charismatic movement because it enlarged my vision of who God is and what he's about. In the same way, I'm glad to be part of the EC because I believe the same Spirit of God is continuing to teach the same lesson, only we're now seeing beyond the institution of the church too. Whereas through the renewal movement the Spirit taught me to expect God to work in ways I don't expect within the church, and that means through people I may not agree with; through the EC he is teaching me to expect God to be at work in the lives of all people in and outside the church, and to rejoice in this and partner with him in living the Gospel - the good news - amongst the people he loves. This is not, of course, rocket science - it's simply a rediscovery of the missio Dei that has always been from the foundations of the earth.

The EC is currently in a liminal phase, which is why many people associated with it will argue that it's a conversation not a movement. In fact, there is little desire within the EC to create a movement in the sense of an alternative denomination. As a result, it's difficult to project into the future, as to do so may run the danger of imposing strategies and models too early, so missing what the Spirit of God is teaching us along the way.

With that said, however, what I hope for (and here is your chance to agree or disagree with me!) is that through the EC the Spirit of God will continue to open our eyes to the activity of God at large, and renew the Church to truly be conveyers of his grace - not simply preachers of a message (though the message is essential) but conveyers of grace; to recognise that all people are created and loved by God, and that there is nowhere where God isn't and no-one off limits to him. I hope (and pray) that the EC will not simply be a pocket of the Church that seeks to live in this way, but that it will have been a catalyst for the whole of the Church to be renewed.

That may be a big ask and this is a long splurge, but Phil's post invited it! What do you think?...

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:21 AM


I am delighted to see what you have gained from your own charismatic background and the positive vibe you feel coalescing in EC generally. If my first scenario becomes the prevailing way for EC then there is much to look forward to!

However, there are, as I proposed three other possible scenarios which are not as promising. I would like to see some critical evaluation and reflection occur in the global networks of EC about the concerns I have intimated that could develop if the first scenario falters.

As I emphasized in the original post diversity or heterogeneity is what presently characterises the EC globally (at least that's my understanding of it in the English speaking world; I cannot presume to know what is occurring in those parts of the world where EC writers are speaking in native tongues). So I do not want to paste a label over everything EC as if everything is just a mere variation on a theme.

As various EC writers and bloggers speak of their encounter with postmodernity, and their affinity with much of postmodernity, I have repeatedly asked for dialogue about the significant cultural changes that are being driven by alternative forms of spirituality which do not surface from commitments to Christ.

One of my concerns is that in the cultural ferment (call it postmodernity or globalisation)significant changes have occurred and are occurring where new non-Christian cosmologies and praxis have emerged. These cosmologies challenge Christianity (no matter whether we speak of EC or traditional churches) and people are seriously reframing their ways of being and living around new experiences and new cosmologies that are not grounded in Christ. People have shifted to a theodicy based in karma and reincarnation; or in gnosis and the practice of magic, the Cabala etc. The rising challenges come from the resucitation of western esoteric praxis and thought (hermetic magic), from neo-pagan cosmologies, new age, adaptations of Buddhist ways and much more. These are matters that are far from peripheral and go much deeper than what quite a few EC writers seem to take notice of.

In view of the avowed emphases in EC networks about being at the forefront of new urban missions inside the West, and that the engagement for EC is with the cultural shift in postmodernity, why then is there little interest or interaction with those of us who have been deeply involved in incarnational forms of ministry and missions with these spiritualities? Why is it assumed that postmodernity only reflects mix and match images of cultural sampling and discursive spirals away from institutions? Why are the alternate spiritualities being overlooked, when there is a clear connection between the grass roots shift and interest in exploring these pathways? And as these pathways seem to me and many other analysts a major component in the "steam engine" that drives postmodernity, I am puzzled that for all the missional discourses in EC that not much serious engagement is occurring on these matters.

In my cultural setting the Church as an institution is in severe decline and has been for a long time. In this setting Christianity has not shaped the culture as it has in the northern hemisphere. So the acute swing toward new and alternate spiritualities has been very strong. In this setting the trends you guys now see in England were already chugging along here some sixteen years ago.

In my context we have had our "rivers of Babylon" experience of "cultural exile", and way deep now into the "post-exilic" missions. While my culture is not at the centre of the world's stage, I feel that we have useful contributions to offer globally. The curious thing is that we feel marginalised on all counts -- our discourse is marginalised from a marginalised and decaying church institution; our discourse is marginalised culturally because of our "distance" from all others; our discourse is marginalised because we are slowly striving to meet and listen and reflect and respond to our culture that has shifted spiritually; and we are not included in the EC discourses.

In our setting we feel though that without some critically reflective and culturally sensitive discernment, that EC is poised to be itself by-passed by the tidal shifts in postmodernity because one of the significant and influential segments of it is being overlooked. We are waving our hands in the air (or on the pixelated screen) saying "hey guys could you pause and listen to what we perceive?" We are concerned that you are not focussing on some importnat matters that go right to the heart of positive EC concerns. We are also concerned that by omitting the matters we are calling for egalitarian discussion on that the other "negative" scenarios will by default ensue because some serious things are off the radar screen and EC could be highly susceptible to faltering and failing.

commented by Blogger philjohnson, 11:13 PM  

Here's Thomas Merton writing in 1959 on movements. Where he speaks of the contemplative I believe we can transpose 'Christian', as his other writings make clear:

'The contemplative mind is, in fact, not normally ultraconservative, but neither is it necessarily radical. It transcends both these extremes in order to remain in living contact with that which is genuinely true in any traditional movement....[it] will not normally be associated too firmly or too definitively with any "movement", whether political, religious, liturgical, artistic, philosophical, or what have you. The contemplative stays clear of movements, not because they confuse him, but simply because he does not need them and can go farther by himself than he can in their formalized and often fanatical ranks.

'Nevertheless active contemplation should be to a great extent in contact with the logos of its age. Which means in simple fact that the contemplative today might be expected to have an intuitive grasp of and even sympathy for what is most genuine in the characteristic movements of our time....'

(The Inner Experience, pp. 58-9, pub. 2003)

It seems to me that Merton was alert to many of the issues that now surround the progress of the emerging church movement/ conversation, as identified by Phil and Malcolm. He indicates an objective yet engaged perspective from which to consider any question about future scenarios and pathways, always alive to the fact that God's way is bigger than our own.

I am tempted to claim that each of Phil's four scenarios will come to pass in some form or other. I am also tempted to claim that each scenario will find its fulfilment in the others. 'The King is dead; long live the King' - the paradox that is the heart of Christianity. The one thing that won't happen is that the Church will die, except tht it will, except that it will be resurrected. Hard-headed analysis of the emerging church as a movement will not stop it from disappearing, but God forbid we should disengage from the analysis. The prophet always shouts into a void - no matter how full the congregation. If the congregation has disappeared, should he or she stop shouting? By no means! Even if the infrastructure crumbles and the movement fades and the buildings fall down. This is meant as encouragement to all who feel on the periphery (which is always where the new growth starts). So I suspect it is for me as much as for anyone else.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 6:30 PM  

Malcolm - just a follow on note. I note a bit of traffic has come my way via your link. However not much commentary on the blog (yours and mine) and almost zilch in any emails. I guess you never know what is being digested and ruminated on, what sparks reactions, and what "bores" people!

commented by Blogger philjohnson, 11:22 PM  

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