Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Emerging church and Existing church

For awhile, I have been coming across the term "emerging church" in my reading and net-surfing. Living in Spain, I have probably been a bit shielded in relation to what’s been going on in other parts of the world related to this. A few years back, I was given the book A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. While this book contains some interesting ideas, and expresses what I interpret to be well-intentioned attempts to be more relevant to the culture in which we live, I must confess that a lot of what I read seemed to challenge what I consider to be biblical orthodoxy. Upon later hearing McLaren’s name mentioned as a sort of "figure-head" of the "emerging church" movement, I have been a bit wary, though admittedly a bit ignorant at the same time of what it was all about. Feeling the need to get a little more "caught up", I recently purchased the book emergingchurch.intro by British author Michael Moynagh.

Although I can’t say I found myself in 100% agreement with everything he says (but then again, with whom else could I say that?), I found the bulk of what Moynagh has to say a good bit more palatable to my "orthodox" mindset than what I was expecting. Actually, I found a lot of what he had to say echoing what many of us as missionaries have been trying to do, as far as helping the churches we hope to see planted be relevant and indigenous to the culture in which they are located.

Some helpful quotes for me include:

"Emerging church" does not parachute a set model of church on to people: it is church from below. It starts not with a preconceived notion of church, but with the desire to express church in the culture of the group involved. It is church shaped by the context, not by "This is how we have always done it" …a growing number are geared toward people with no church background. They start not with an invitation, "You come to us on our terms", but offer instead, "We’ll come to you. If you want, we’ll help you to be the church at a time that suits you, in a place that is convenient to you and in your style, not ours".

For me, from a missionary point of view, so far so good.

The God for all cultures dived into one particular culture. By becoming human, the Son could be in only one place at a time. The church is commissioned to make disciples from all cultures, but to do that it, too, must be immersed in individual cultures. No single expression of church can be involved fully with lots of "people groups" simultaneously. Like Christ, the church needs to be culturally specific. "The gospel can only be proclaimed in a culture, not at a culture" – nor as a culture: God’s universal word takes root when there is a dialogue between the culture of those who bring it and the culture of those who receive it.

Excellent missiology!

I especially appreciate the emphasis given in this book towards a healthy relationship between what it calls the "emerging church" and the "existing church" or "inherited church". For instance, the following quote from co-contributor Stuart Murray Williams:

Hope for the future of the church in Western culture does not lie with the inherited church. Nor does it lie with the emerging church. It lies in conversations between inherited and emerging churches that enable each to learn from the other and together find fresh ways of incarnating the gospel in a changing and diverse culture.

Also the following from Moynagh himself:

Some in emerging church circles are so disenchanted with church that they want to turn their back on it…This bracing radicalism risks throwing out the accumulated wisdom of the church with the bathwater.

Obviously a vision for the emerging church needs some blessing from the existing church …It will help the new if new and old are to see themselves as interdependent and do some things together.

One danger is that fresh expressions of church will plough furrows entirely separate from the mainstream. That may be because the continuing church is unnecessarily suspicious. Or perhaps pioneers of the new have little time left to strengthen links with the inherited church. Yet connecting to the wider church is important not only for theological reasons, but also for practical ones: the wider church can help to sustain a new expression of church…Being in touch with other parts of the church is vital. Believers can paint their faith in richer colours, while responsibility for discipling new Christians can be more widely shared.

I believe as we think through ways of sharing Christ and "doing church" which are relevant to the cultures in which we work, it is good to keep in mind these important words of advice.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Foreign Trappings

H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book Christ and Culture, makes the following observations:

"Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nationes. Hence it was to be 'expected that they would unite with indignation against any sect of people which should separate itself from the communion of mankind and claiming the exclusive possession of divine knowledge, should disdain every form of worship except its own as impious and idolatrous.' Toward Jews, who held the same convictions as Christians about the gods and idols, Romans could be somewhat tolerant, because they were a separate nation with ancient traditions, and because they were content for the most part to live withdrawn from the social life. Christians, however, were members of Roman society, and in the midst of that society explicitly and implicitly expressed their scorn for the religions of the people. Hence they appeared to be traitors who dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised what their fathers had believed true and reverenced as sacred."

On occasions, we may get a more polite hearing of the Gospel message we present, when we couch that message in foreign cultural trappings. Does that mean we are making any headway in our attempts to see the people from the people group we are trying to win to Christ come to Christ? Not necessarily. In order for the Gospel to truly penetrate a people group and Christian disciples be made, it must be understood and received within the same cultural context of that people group.

The practical implications of this? I believe we need to seek to involve national, indigenous believers in our evangelistic efforts as much as possible from the very beginning. When they are rejected and treated as outcasts within their own society, we need to be there to support and encourage them. In our evangelistic approach, we need to continuously ask ourselves: "Will what we are doing and how we are doing it contribute more in the long run towards helping our people embrace Christ in their own cultural context, or will it further cement in their minds the idea that the message we are proclaiming is essentially a foreign one, only valid for those who choose to live in a different culture?"