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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!

experiencing, understanding, believing and sliding...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I've been involved in an interesting email discussion over the last week or so, which arose in response (initially) to my posts on this blog about Ikon and Pete Rollins' book. Since the spark for the discussion came from these pages, I asked the other person (Tim) if I could post the last few emails here for others to join in and add their perspectives. If you want to know (before reading this long post) what issues we've been discussing, I guess you could some them up as: experience of God vs understanding of God; how we believe vs what we believe; and is the Emerging Church a new liberalism? If any of these issues grab you and you'd like to add your comments, read on...

Hello Malcolm,

I have written to you before and saw your positive comments on Pete Rollins book about How not To Speak to God. I read the book and thought it was confusing, and the stuff I think I understood, I disagreed with. I thought his main point was: that we can not understand God but we can experience God. Am I accurate in my understanding of his book?



thanks for your email. I don't think I read Pete Rollins in quite the same way as you have described. From what I gleaned, Pete was simply trying to challenge the modernist assumptions that rational understanding is the ultimate goal of spiritual endeavour, and argue for a more experiential faith drawing on the ancient resources of monastic spirituality and the like. What I found particularly helpful was his reminder that the closer we get to God (in our experience and understanding) the more we realize the limitations of our understanding concerning him.

As an illustration to this I blogged some time back (on Dream's Lent blog - now offline) about a visit I made to the Angel of the North in Gateshead. From a distance you could see this amazing sculpture and get a handle on the overall picture. From close up, however, you could see the rivets and the corrugated iron sheets - i.e. the detail, but could not take in the whole sculpture. In other words, the closer you get to it the more intimately you see it and the more you see the detail, etc, but the more you also realize that there is a bigger picture you only see a part of. I think this is something like what Pete was saying with respect to our relationship with God.

Pete points out that whereas we tend to understand revelation as the opposite to concealment, biblical revelation is often the unsettling of knowledge. That is, instead of being in a position of not knowing then we get revelation then we know, we find ourselves in a position of knowing (or thinking we know) then we get revelation then we realize that we don't really know (and so, paradoxically, we come to know at a deeper level). I think there's a lot in this and it certainly seems to be the level at which Jesus was operating in relation to the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day.

I hope this helps!

Hi Malcolm,

I am going to reread his book and try not to react. I remember a thought from his book that shocked me - it was like we need to be concerned more with how we believe that what we believe. I thought that what I believed is the foundational aspect of behavior, not behavior the foundation of belief. Maybe I am just too old and have such a totally different way of looking at things. I was talking to Peter Maiden the head of OM and he sees emergent as the first step in the new liberalism that will fully emerge in two or three generations. I am afraid of this also.

I have no concern for emergent theology impact the Muslim or Buddhist world. Nothing withstands the wave of Islam except pure Jesus as you know from your time in Pakistan. My friends who are living in Kabul right now are laying their lives on the line for Jesus. Emergent folks are at seminars and churches in the western world, but not at the coal face of missions.

Do you have concerns that Emergent is wanting to dilute the gospel?

Hi Tim

thanks for your email - I think the concern you raise is a valid one, although I don't think the 'how we believe' is simply about behaviour. I guess how we believe is pretty much tied up with what we believe - for example if we believe in a God of military conquest, then wars in the name of God are ok. If, on the other hand, we believe in a God of love and grace then we will love people we don't agree with and allow them to hold differing beliefs no matter how much we may feel they are wrong, misguided or whatever. So how we believe (eg. humbly, dogmatically, aggressively, lovingly,...) is intimately tied up with what we believe.

As to whether Emergent is diluting the gospel... I cannot and would not want to answer for Emergent as an organisation (be it the US or UK version) but the Emerging Church conversation (as it has been labelled) is exploring the possibilities of going beyond the old polarities or Evangelical, Liberal, Catholic, etc to see if Biblical faith (and Jesus) is more inclusive than we first thought. I guess this is the basis of McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, which I found very helpful. If this is risking taking the first steps to a new liberalism then I think it's worth the risk. However, where it (or should I say, where I) differ from some forms of 'liberalism' is in the desire to remain thoroughly Biblical, but to do so while remaining open to the possibility that what I thought was Biblical is in fact not so. I am open to learn from followers of Christ of all traditions and, hopefully, in doing so discover a deeper relationship with God.

I don't know if that makes sense or not. I would 100% agree with you in your statement "Nothing withstands the wave of Islam (though I wouldn't necessarily put it like that) except pure Jesus", but I would follow this up with the challenge as to what is 'pure Jesus'? Is our (evangelical) interpretation of the gospel 'pure Jesus' or is it 'Jesus with bits added'? I guess my desire in joining and exploring the Emerging Church Conversation is to better discover that 'pure Jesus' so that in my life and ministry I may point people to him and him alone.

Thanks for the conversation - keep the comments coming!


Quite simply 100% pure Jesus is that Jesus is God's only and Final revelation through which to know him. No other world religion, cult, ideology, is from the heart of the Father. I am not saying that other religions do not contain slivers of truth, but only through Jesus can we come to know the Father and walk in his Kingdom while we are alive and will be with him when we physically die. Everyone else is eternally separated from experiencing the love of the Father if they do not know Jesus as the way to the Father.

That's 100% Jesus to me!

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:53 AM | link | 3 comments |

the opposite of faith...

Monday, November 27, 2006

So how would you handle the question that was posed to me today... 'what is faith and what is the opposite of faith?' The thing that intrigued me about the question was the second part - what is the opposite of faith?

On the one hand you could argue (and I probably would) that faith doesn't really have an opposite. Some (Richard Dawkins, et al) would suggest that scientific rationalism has provided an opposite (or, at very least, an alternative) to faith, but I'm always struck, when talking to such people, by how many 'leaps of faith' they are still taking in their arguments. It's a well rehearsed point that science has not (and cannot) disprove the existence of God or the realm of faith, and so faith is still very much in the equation of the beliefs of even the atheist.

As I mused over this further though, I started toying with the idea that maybe the people closest to the opposite of faith are not the atheists, but the so-called 'people of faith' who think they've got everything sorted. An ultra-conservative theological viewpoint that claims to know all the answers (albeit through 'revelation') and has no room to be surprised or to have that knowledge challenged by further revelation is one that is closed to the mystery of God. Such a view has virtually pushed out the realm of faith, since everything is already black and white - all the t's are crossed and all the i's are dotted; here there is nothing to 'believe' by faith because we already 'know' everything.

It's an interesting idea and somewhat paradoxical that possibly the closest we know to the opposite of faith is not to be found outside the church in the academic lecture halls (which, after all, are given to the pursuit of knowledge and the recognition that there is always more to be discovered, so keeping alive the realm of faith), but is actually to be found inside the church amongst those who have jettisoned the realm of faith in favour of an unshakeable 'knowledge'. Interesting... but probably full of holes as far as theories go!


posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 3:05 PM | link | 8 comments |

dream to go..

Richard White is running a great series on the Dream blog entitled 'Dream to go'. The idea came as a response to members of the Dream groups requesting more Dream-type reflections to use in their own devotional spaces. The series is already up to number 6 so search the archives over the last few weeks to get the set so far. The last two (Jesus isn't perfect and you're getting on my nerves) are well worth checking out!

The hope is that this will be a series that others from the Dream communies will also contribute to over the coming weeks.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 2:21 PM | link | 2 comments |

missional community #2

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Just time for a quick post to point you to Ben Edson's provocative post 'missional and inclusive?' which is in part a response to my earlier post 'here' about the tension implicit in the notion of 'missional community'. Ben asks whether an ethical community can ever be truly missional, arguing that it will be defined through either nationalistic or patriotic tendencies, each in their own way negating any sense of genuine inclusivity.

While I'm not sure that I agree with his premise that ethical community demands definition in one of these two ways, Ben does ask some important questions about community 'gate-keeping', especially those of how we understand what identifies and unites the community, and when does this becomes exclusive of others?

Christian communities that I have been a part of in the past have usually had clear ideas of who is 'in' (= 'saved' or 'Christian') and who is 'out' (= 'unsaved' or 'non-Christian'). 'Outreach' events are then put on as a way of engaging the 'outsiders' and bringing them 'in' through the act of conversion. Such communities are never truly inclusive (and, to be fair, don't claim to be) as they operate from the nationalistic or patriotic foundations that Ben mentions.

However, my experience of emerging church groups is that, to some extent at least, they do exhibit inclusive community by replacing the primary concepts of doctrinal assent and conversion with that of journeying in faith. This 'journeying' metaphor enables anyone (who wants to journey) to join the community. However, having said this, the experience of many who have tried to join emerging churches is that it's still not easy to penetrate such communities, and can at times be intimidating and isolating. This is perhaps an indication of the presence of unintentional marks of exclusivity coming from close friendships (dare I say cliques?) and shared stories that such communities engender. In other words, the theological and ecclesiological shift may have been done, so resisting the nationalism or patriotism of Ben's post, but human relationships are still, with the best will in the world, exclusive.

Can we ever get around this or is the first step towards genuine inclusivity simply acknowledging this and being aware of it?

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 11:13 AM | link | 5 comments |

leaving god behind...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

'this' is an amazing discussion thread started by a woman (Jaqueline) who had began a process of deconstruction regarding her faith in God. It's well worth reading (and gets much better as it progresses, so stick with it!) for the vulnerability and honesty it contains, and for the various responses which are often profoundly moving, sometimes deeply frustrating, but always (it seems) coming from a desire to 'help' or to 'accompany' Jaqueline on the journey she is on. 'Colonel Henry Blake', who joins the discussion at post 20 and is a frequent contributor from there onwards, has recently joined the steering group for Spirited Exchanges UK and often posts comments on this blog. As you read, it may be worth asking yourself the question 'how would/have/do I respond(ed) to people asking similar questions of faith?'


posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 8:24 AM | link | 1 comments |

intergenerational worship

Monday, November 13, 2006

I had a conversation this morning with someone about the dreaded 'all-age service' and why it always tends towards the lowest common denominator, which feels far more patronising (to all ages) than genuinely inclusive! My theory on this (for what it's worth) is that the problem lies (once again) on the tendency to reduce 'learning' in the context of worship to rational understanding. If this is all valid learning is, then the only really effective way to do it is through age-specific groups which target their 'teaching' at the intellectual level of the participants in that group. Any attempt at teaching everyone together is likely to feel 'childish' at best!

However, if we see 'learning' as happening through experience as well as rational understanding then we will start to look somewhat more creatively at enabling worship 'experiences' for people of all ages, through which they can make meaningful connections with the God who ultimately does the 'teaching'. This should prompt us to consider the use of space, atmosphere, the human senses, and a whole host of other things too.

Yesterday Jo (my wife) and I took our children to Sanctus 2nds in Manchester, which is creatively seeking to provide an all-age worship experience (an 'intergenerational service' is how they describe it on their web site). There's no doubt that some of what went on there sailed over my three year old's head but connected with my five year old. Some of it sailed past them both and some of it connected with them both (though I dare say in different ways). One of my favourite activities was a painting exercise where we were invited to add our creative mark to a canvas painting, and to use this as a window to reflection and prayer. What was great about it was that my children were able to make their contribution on the same canvas (the first time they've painted on proper artist canvas) alongside the contributions of somewhat more able 'artists', and that all of these contributions were equally valid and went together to make up the final piece of art that was offered in worship later in the service. To me this was an enacted parable of inclusivity and held a key to all-age worship!

By the same token, I was intrigued by the minister who spoke at the beginning of the service and later apologised for not making it 'child-friendly'. I felt like telling him that the all-age inclusivity was held in the space (while he was talking there were activities around the tables for anyone - children or adult - to engage with) and so didn't necessarily need to be held in the talk as well (I didn't tell him this because I hadn't thought it through by then!!) There was plenty for my children to get stuck in to through the stations and other activities, not to mention participation in the Communion, and so it really didn't matter that the 'talk' passed them by. I guess if we're being totally honest, good 'adult' sermons pass a significant proportion of the 'adult' congregation by every Sunday!!

I'm convinced that my children genuinely engaged with God in this act of worship (as did Jo and I), and when I asked them what they thought of the service on the way home they both told me they'd enjoyed themselves! That's a pretty good test of 'all-age worship' if you ask me!

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 1:32 PM | link | 3 comments |


Friday, November 10, 2006

A quick post to say 'welcome' to any new visitors to this blog who have arrived here via the emergingchurch.info blog - it's always a welcome surprise when something like 'this' is posted! Hope you enjoy this blog - please feel free to comment on anything you read!
posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:13 AM | link | 0 comments |

south park worship...

This is great (so long as you don't mind joking about the Christian music scene!!)

hat tip: Matt Stone

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:07 AM | link | 0 comments |

this is not a church... this is

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Check out Steve Collins' elements of an urban church 'here' - a great thought-provoking vision!

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 11:51 AM | link | 0 comments |

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dream in Liverpool City
'winter warmth'
thursday @ 8pm


posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 4:07 PM | link | 0 comments |

a lived theology...

emergingchurch.info is well worth checking out regularly for its collection of stories, the latest of which comes from Cape Town, South Africa. Ash's story, from another part of the world, sounds very similar to the stories of many people I've encountered here in the UK. The following quote particularly stands out for me, as it resonates so closely with Pete Ward's Liquid Church...

"This thing called 'church happens for me every time I get together with another Christian and we have a heart to heart, when we seek God together and when we share of our experiences and encounters with God. It may happen at a friend's home, in a local church service, walking to the store during lunch or even on a Thursday night at the Coffee Bean (quaint little restaurant in Rondebosch) - church is not limited by time or place. I call it a 'lived theology'."

You can read the rest of Ash's story 'here'.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:45 AM | link | 0 comments |

the tension of missional community...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I had a great conversation (with my MPhil supervisor!) earlier today about the research I've been involved in, and especially about my reflections on the fieldwork so far. As we were chatting it became clear to me that the issue I keep coming back to in relation to the emerging church (see, for example, my previous post 'here') is the nature of community evolving and, in particular, the implicit tension found in the oft-used phrase and fundamental value 'Missional Community'.

Why is this a tension? In short, it seems that as community becomes established it can very quickly settle into a 'comfort zone' of sorts that detaches it from the initial missional value. The tension arises when a group begins to become a place of natural openness, vulnerability and mutual responsibility for its members (something that is, in itself, highly desirable and a mark of what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as ethical community), but in doing so inadvertently starts to close the doors of entry to the group. The arrival of a new face can upset the balance and so lead to ill-feeling on the part of existing group members towards the newcomer (although this is rarely voiced and usually very well disguised!) and even to a shutting down in some people who were, prior to the arrival of the newcomer, open and 'at ease'.

I wonder if this has parallels with Victor Turner's description of communitas and structure. Initially, it seems that new emerging church groups, fuelled by a missional and incarnational ethos, take on the fluid and undefined characteristics of communitas; evolving communities that are attractive to, and shaped by, people who wouldn't connect with the structural church or who find themselves on the edges of it. However, once community starts to be built and members start to feel a sense of belonging, it isn't long until the settling process begins, with the establishment of values, models, etc. to 'protect' the way that things are. This can become an unintentional gatekeeping exercise that keeps those who don't 'fit' on the outside. As such we come to realise, without being aware of how or when it happened, that the fluid missional and incarnational communitas has become a new structure with its own 'insiders' and 'outsiders'.

Of course, 'tensions' like this are not necessarily bad or irresolvable. I tend to think that the tension found in 'missional community' is an incredibly creative one that gives much of the energy to emerging church groups. Even so, the question remains: how do we maintain (or is that in itself a form of control and structure?) the church on the edge - the communitas that remains truly missional and open? Does the structuralising of an emerging church community necessarily spell doom and disaster for its missional aspirations?

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 4:02 PM | link | 3 comments |

the church you know...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

I've just been introduced to a great web site 'the Church you Know', run by two blokes who describe their purpose in the following way...

"We intend to stimulate, to question, and to provoke - hopefully in love - the Church, because we love the Church. This love compels us to question some of the characteristics and practices we see in much of the institutional church."

What I love about it is their use of humour to challenge. Particularly amusing are the seven videos which each take a theme in modern church culture (my personal favourites are 'tithing' and 'wwjd'!) and, with a healthy dose of irony, portray the worst side of each. Is this just to ridicule?... I think not! Instead, it seems that these two men, who themselves confess that they love the church, are simply challenging us to take a hard look at ourselves and see how far our church culture has led us away from being the kind of serving and missional communites Christ intends us to be. I dare say I will be using some of these short videos in the future to provoke discussion!!

Thanks to Richard White (that's two mentions in one week!), who directed me to the site. Richard is a member of the Dream Network and regularly blogs 'here'.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:41 AM | link | 0 comments |