By Jordon Cooper
If you are in denominational or church leadership, I am writing to you. I am writing you from some of us who are a small part of this thing called the emerging church.
Writing to denominational leaders is a hard task. Denominations get bashed a lot by people who love to make over-generalizations and that isn’t my intent here. Secondly, if you are like the denominational leaders I know, you probably have enough people telling you what to do already. I don’t intend to do that either. First of all, I am part of a denomination. My grandfather was a denominational stooge and so are some good friends. Resonate, a community of those discussing the Gospel and culture in Canada also has some denominational leaders who are a part of it and the last I checked, they hadn’t been run out of town. You have a tough job and for many of you, a constituency that is quite diverse in practice and worldview. One of those challenges is what to make of the emerging church. There has been a lot written about the topic by a lot of people smarter than I am. What I do want to do is talk about a part of the emerging church that in all of the controversies, we don’t hear a lot about lately.
I thought I would start with an interview that Ron Sider did with Christianity Today back in 2005. “The heart of the matter is the scandalous failure to live what we preach. The tragedy is that poll after poll byGallup and Barna show that evangelicals live just like the world. Contrast that with what the New Testament says about what happens when people come to living faith in Christ. There’s supposed to be radical transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The disconnect between our biblical beliefs and our practice is just, I think, heart-rending. I’m a deeply committed evangelical. I’ve been committed to evangelical beliefs and to renewing the evangelical church all of my life. And the stats just break my heart. They make me weep. And somehow we must face that reality and change it.”
As I was reading the article I was thinking about how quickly evangelicals have been to condemn the world and have ignored those in the church. Maybe it is a “not happening here” syndrome. As a Free Methodist I could blame the Baptists for being so immoral while they blame the Nazarenes. If we aren’t blaming each other, we may see the problem itself as so large that it is easy to ignore. A couple of months ago when I posted Ron Sider’s summary of his book in Christianity Today to our denominations e-mail discussion list, the only response back came off list and the person just said it is too big for us to tackle so many go back to what they know isn’t working.
The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expecting a different result. That doesn’t seem to be a great use of time, energy, or resources. A desire to change is what Sider is talking about in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest Of The World? is what drives a lot of the emerging church. While we still love the church, we see the church having failed it’s own basic mission. I wish I could hear a big Amen at this point but the reality is that not everyone sees it that way. I have colleagues in ministry that point to the Sunday attendance of their churches and their building programs and tell me that everything is going great and they criticize those of us that go in a different direction. All denominations deny this but the sweet allure of success is just too powerful, successful and big churches drive the agenda’s of many denominations, either formally or informally. Success is largest impediment of change, which is why most downtown cores of cities across the United States and Canada are full of massive church buildings that were the megachurches of their day. What made them successful made it very hard to change from that. Change and new initiatives don’t traditionally thrive in most institutions and need to be nurtured and protected at times.
If we existing movements don’t do that, it will be guilty of being on the different side of situation as it was when it was formed. Almost all current evangelical movements and traditions came from traditions that fiercely resisted their formation. If you are a denominational leader reading this, you have either experienced or know of people that have gone before you that went through this. If you don’t, check out your denominations history book, I am sure it is in there. While you are reading your denominational history books, see if you can find the phrase, “You’re right, we do need to change our ways to be faithful to God.” It is hard to hear that what we have done before isn’t working today. The question for many denominations is; can new wines be poured into old wineskins?
Why the new wine? It’s something that gets talked about less and less in the emerging church but is what I think started the entire discussion and that is mission. While the discussion of mission and church was first and foremost when many of us starting talking about this, recently, many don’t connect emergent or emerging church to anything missional at all. This isn’t a discussion about leadership styles, worship forms, or what kind of candles to have. It isn’t about adding onto existing ministries as a program (as seen in the amount of “Pastor to Emerging Generations” job titles I have seen) but rather a desire to reach a generation that doesn’t even have the church on it’s radar. If you doubt me, take a Sunday off of church and sit in a coffee shop by your local university campus. Listen for any references to church at all. I don’t think that people are sleeping in on Sunday morning either agonizing over missing church vs. watching some NFL football. We are making the same discovery that English missionary Leslie Newbiggin made after returning to England after being a missionary in India. Lesslie Newbigin lived that story upside down. At the age of 65, he came home to England and found it foreign. Ministry in England, he discovered, “is much harder than anything I met in India. There is a cold contempt for the Gospel which is harder to face than opposition. . . . England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church” (Unfinished Agenda). From that rude confrontation with pagan England has come an outpouring of books and lectures. Newbigin looked at the West with a missionary’s eye and asked a missionary’s analytic questions. How can we evangelize this culture, built on Christian foundations yet utterly unwilling to consider (almost unable to understand) the Christian’s claim to know the truth that will set us free? It is hard, Newbigin knew, for a Hindu or a Muslim to come to worship Christ. For an Englishman, it would seem, it had become even harder.
Bishop Leslie Newbiggin and later Ron Sider articulated for the western world the condition that we find the church in today. George Barna provided for us the polling data and it just confirmed for us what we already anecdotally knew. The church seems to have failed at our mission of evangelism and discipleship. We find ourselves surrounded by empty churches that we are afraid or embarrassed to bring unchurched friends to because we know they can’t connect to a culture they have no experience in. Perhaps even more sadly, we are apart of a church that is living much differently than what it preaches. Like you, we want to change that and because our contexts are different, so will be the forms that we use to reach them.
These just aren’t issues for the emerging church. They are issues for all of us in the church. Our answers to them will be different, depending on the context but in the end the pursuit is the same. Yes, there are theological questions to be worked out and that will take time and dialogue to happen. Some traditions will probably oppose them while others will accept them (like with most theological debates).
While the important work of theology is being done, let’s not take our focus off of our mission as well. My hope is that denominations from all different traditions aren’t threatened by the name emerging church or see its rejection of some more traditional forms and see that we are all in this together. When you look at the emerging church, I hope you see something that in many ways is just like anything new and will take a while to learn to walk and articulate what it is learning. Instead of being something that is to be feared, I also hope that the many of the traditions out there will remember their own early years and give some refuge to the emerging movements that God has entrusted your tradition with.