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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!

Emerging Church Identity & How (Not) to Speak of God

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ok, I don't normally do this and I'm not about to start a habit of it now but, as an exception to the rule, I'm going to quote from a book I haven't even read yet! I can't comment on Pete Rollins' 'How (Not) to Speak of God' yet (obviously, as I haven't read it) but as I was catching up with my blog reading this morning I came across three other bloggers who clearly HAVE read it (Jonny Baker, Andrew Jones and Scot McKnight) and two of them quote a passage that resonates with me and also with the discussion that's been ongoing on this blog from my last 3 posts (by the way, thanks to everyone who'd contributed to those discussions - it's been an inspiration and an education!)

In posting about Emergent US's reluctance to offer a doctrinal statement of belief (see 'here'), it seems I've hit a critical discussion in the emerging church (EC). Of course, it's not that we don't have doctrinal beliefs in the EC, but that we're nervous of imposing a faith package on a person's spiritual journey because we've seen how such packages have been used and abused in the past. A question I've been left with from the discussions is how the EC defines itself in the absence of doctrinal statements - i.e. what does it mean for me to belong to this group - what am I 'signing up to', if anything? In the case of Dream, we've resisted doctrinal statements and gone for 'core values'. The first of these is 'Christ-centred' and is explained in the following way..

The Dream Network is committed to the concept of '‘faithful improvisation'’, seeking in our exploration and experimentation, to remain faithful to the story of God'’s people contained in the Bible and lived out over the last 2,000 years. While resisting unhelpful labels and working to be a welcoming place for those whose past experience of church has been negative, we remain unashamedly within the 'Christian'’ tradition. We therefore seek to develop a spirituality centred on Jesus Christ and lives that are formed by following him.

Now, of course, we've made an implicit
(though some might say 'not very'!) statement of faith by appealing to the 'Christian Tradition' and the stated intention of remaining faithful to the 'story of God's people'. Likewise, we focus on Jesus because of what we believe to be true about him. Doctrine is fundamentally present in Dream's values and outlook.

But, and it's an important but, by not wearing the doctrinal statements on our sleeves, so to speak, and not imposing them on our members, Dream remains a community open to people who wouldn't identify themselves as 'Christians', or who would not at that point in time be able to agree with those doctrines, but are keen to develop an understanding of, even follow, the person Jesus. For example, before she moved away from Liverpool, a frequent member of the 'Dream in Liverpool City' community was a faithfully committed Muslim young woman for whom Jesus is an important character in her faith. She brought her own reverence for Jesus to the worship and fully respected what was happening in Dream even though she voluntarilly sat out of certain activities (e.g. when we shared Communion). She was welcomed into the community and considered to belong even though her beliefs differ from those of historic Christianity in many ways. We could, of course, have kept her at arms length, even excluded her altogether, by insisting that members assented to a 'Christian' doctrinal basis of faith, but I think our approach has more in common with that of Jesus in the gospels and certainly displays grace more visibly.

Equally, others who have connected with Dream or other EC communities have initially done so simply because their own exploration was respected and they didn't feel pushed into a package of belief or ethics. Many of these have continued in their journey and now own a faith which may be identified more closely with the doctrine of the historic creeds, etc. However, if those creeds were an upfront 'membership statement' it is unlikely that these people would have joined the community and continued journeying in the direction of Christ.

Maybe then, the EC doesn't really need to define itself at all. Maybe its place in the missio Dei is precisely that place of open, often messy and up in the air, exploration. Maybe we need to spend far more time listening to the stories of people who do not consider themselves to be Christian but are on a journey of spiritual discovery, and be open to the activity of God in their lives. Maybe if the EC becomes too defined, it will cease to be 'emerging' in any meaningful sense, and simply become another institution or denomination. So here's the quote from the book I haven't yet read!...

In this way the emerging conversation is demonstrating an ability to stand up and engage in a powerless, space creating discourse that opens up thinking and offers hints rather than orders. In short the emerging community must endeavour to be a question rather than an answer and an aroma rather than food. It must seek to offer an approach that enables the people of God to become the parable, aroma and salt of God in the world, helping to form a space where God can give of God. For too long the church has been seen as an oasis in the desert - offering water to the thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of western capitalism. It is here in this desert as we wander together as nomads, that God is to be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.

Pete, I'm going to order the book now! (Update... it's ordered!!)

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:11 AM



In sharing your anecdotes about the response of Dream to the Muslim lady, I am pleased by the warmth shown to her.

Perhaps (without intending to be conceited) you might find it interesting to see how my colleagues and I have worked on contextual ministry in new age and alternate spiritualities. There's "Jesus and the gods of the New Age" (Lion), "Beyond Prediction" (Lion) and then a trans-Pacific book "Encountering New Religious Movements" (Kregel).

I suggest the books as their contents might prompt further discussion and reflection on the issues you raise about "imposing" a creed on someone's journey.

commented by Blogger philjohnson, 12:12 AM  


Thanks. I think the same thing happens at a personal level too interms of "statements of belief." In wearing my "belief" in an explicit, "in your face" kind of way, am I closing down the possibility of grace and dialogue with another person who might sign up to the exact "statement of faith" I believe in?

In other words is it more useful for statements of faith to be "implicit" (by how I am; by how I embody belief e.g. by actually loving) rather than "explicit"

I too am going to get Pete's book, but that exchange range is going to make it painful [winking].

commented by Blogger Paul Fromont, 8:29 PM  

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