Monday, November 7, 2011

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures: A review and reflection

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger's book Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures ( 2005, Baker Academic) is an excellent exploration of what is known (or maybe formally known) as the Emerging Church Movement. It has the scholarly rigger of being part of Ryan Bolger's Doctoral study and a back up research for one of Eddie Gibbs earlier books. I appreciated the way in which these authors strived to present the Emerging Church, in many of it's a different emerging forms and expressions in the US and UK, in its own words,  as Gibbs and Bolger state in their conclusion.

"We wanted emerging church leaders to be heard in their own words. Our roles have been that of interpreter and commentator. We refrained from acting as censors or critics when something was said about which we have our own opinions. We sort to include leaders who had walked away from their previous ecclesial tradition out of frustration and disillusionment as well as those who continue to work within a traditional, seeking its transformation."

With this ethos the voices of these attempts of doing a new and fresh expression of church within a post modern and post Christendom context spoke, and spoke to me.

Gibbs and Ryan started their book by putting the emerging church into the context of a whole raft of different christian responses to the changing fabric of society in the west. Gen-X Churches, both stand alone and the church within a church model, developing churches and services that reflected and catered for generations so culturally different than the previous ones.New Paradigm churches, expressions of a particular tradition repackaged (sorry my word) in a new cultural context (eg Mars Hill in Seattle is a new paradigm reformed church), seeker friendly formats and finally in what has become known as emerging church. It was helpful for me as I reflect back on over twenty years of ministry to see that I had been involved in all those developing expressions of church, investing in some of the conflicts and controversies associated with them and open to their shortcomings and pit falls as well as their possibilities and strengths. In reading the short bio's of emerging church leaders in the first appendix of this book I discovered I had shared a lot of the same journey of many emerging church leaders.

This brief historical also helped me to put some perspective on the three years of church planting that I have been involved in as well. I wish I had read this book before I started with Studentsoul Auckland. Many of the church planting material I had read before this was so caught up in a model of church that reflected a different, modernistic understanding of church planting that I found myself looking more at the metrics of Attendance and becoming another version of the wannabe mega churches. What we eventually became was more an expression of emerging church (Well a compromise really).

Gibbs and Ryan then spend the majority of their book looking at nine trends or markers of the emerging church.

Three central trends.

1. Identifying with the life of Jesus as a model for life: focusing on Kingdom living
2. Transforming secular space: emerging church rejects the modernistic separation of secular and sacred space. To the extent that kingdom living happens in both. That God is active and able to peak through all things and have a commitment to the idea of Missio Dei, That the spirit is at work in the world and Christians are called to venture out and connect with what God is already doing.
3. Living in Community; That church is not about buildings and what we do on Sunday but is about living a Christ centered life together as a community on a 24/7 basis. Which means not just a development of physical community, although some have gone down the line on new monasticism, but rather than church is about what we do together and any worship event comes out of that.

Gibbs and Ryan then see six other rends in emerging church that flow out of that.

4. Communities and evangelism are about welcoming the stranger. All are welcomed to be part of community.

5. Serving with Generosity: emerging churches believe in serving others but not as some sort of bait for the evangelistic hook but because it is an outpouring of the love they have received from Christ. Not having to keep a modernistic church structure of buildings, paid staff, professional clergy etc going they are able to share what they have with those in need.

6. Participating as Producers: emerging churches look to include all their members in worship and community. They see much of the traditional church and mega church movements as having worship as a consumer product, rather than being an event where all can use their gifts and abilities to give thanks to God, and lead the community.

7. Creating as a created being: emerging church affirms creativity and art. There is an ethos that everyone can contribute to this and value is not put on professionalism but expression. Community size is often regulated by how big a group can be and still maintain and allow space for people to contribute creatively.

8. Leading as a body. Emerging church see leadership as a body ministry, decisions and direction and vision come from the group as a whole. Leadership exercises a role within that and is not vested in one person but is taken up by those who are gifted and impassioned in such areas. The role of the leader is seen as that of facilitator, allowing space for others to exercise their gifts and abilities. There is no professional clergy. The emphasis is on a sustainable model of bi vocational ministers in a priesthood of all believers.

9. Merging Ancient and Contemporary spirituality. Emerging church seeks to explore the heritage of spiritual disciplines, both personal and communal, from the whole of the church family and past and adapt them as a rhythm of life for today's world.

AS i read this book I couldn't help but focus on Studentsoul Auckland. To a certain extent we unknowingly really were trying to walk this emerging track with a leader (me) who had more invested in a modernistic understanding of church. I now know more than ever that Mic who was one of our first people to come along was in actual fact a real god send and leader. I should have listened more to him as he expressed church more as a community, desired to serve the least as an act of worship and invite people to participate more in our worship times.

One of the struggles we had was the fact that I was thinking in terms of a modernistic church that was able to grow to support a professional pastor (me) and it is interesting in the three years I was doing Studentsoul, being employed as a second chaplain at Auckland uni. was more a bi vocational ministry, if I had seen it as such. On the flip side when it came to refinancing more time, the faithful people who had seen it as a project were looking for more progress along the lines of a church rather than a developing community.

I really struggled with the dilemma between adopting an aggressive advertising programme and wanting things to develop more organically through relationships and community. In the end what growth numerically we had came from community involvement and building a relationship with me. Assessing size as a success also was caught between the emerging paradigm that it was depth of community that mattered and wanting to be big enough to be self sustaining financially also was a tension.

AS a group we defined our vision almost by accident. the teaching style invited everyone to be involved in the exploration and interpreting of scripture.

After reading this book I am torn even more between looking for employment simply to make a living so I can continue developing and working with this small community and its mission amongst Uni students and finding a place that will sustain me and my family in the mainline denomination I serve.  

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