Reflections on an emerging church

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While we were in the UK, we were part of one of the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions communities. Fresh Expressions is basically the CoE does emerging church. A few people have asked me if I would write up my thoughts on that time. I think now after a few months away I probably have a little bit of critical distance to be able to sit back and do that.

But not very much critical distance; writing about a community of people that you know and love is really fraught. My intention here is to think about what it meant to be church together, and not to call out anyone for anything in particular. So I’m going to file all the names and numbers off this post, because even if the principals involved may recognise themselves, I don’t think it’s fair if Google picks anyone up.

I’m also going to restrict my thoughts to a particular time in the community’s life after the founding leader had left and before the new leader came in. I’m doing this for various reasons: personally, because I’m in favour of leaderless churches and want to think about the positives as well as the negatives of that kind of situation; second, in a way because that was the hardest time for the church, and if I do say anything too negative I hope people will realise that times have changed; finally because now there is new leadership and I want to give them a fair opportunity to shape the community without sniping from the sidelines.

It was really, really good

First I need to say that my time in that church helped me to experience God and community in ways that I had not done before. I think - although it’s difficult to separate circumstances because I was also at Bible college and part of that community as well - that I grew more in that church than I would have done in any other church in the city during that period. It was definitely the right place for me.

I was challenged in my thinking and in my loving. I was challenged to find Christ in places I had never found him before and in people I did not expect to find him in. I was reminded how big God is. It was fantastic. There were so many things about that church that I really appreciated. It was good.

Herding cats through a tinsel factory

One of the things I appreciated - and still appreciate, I don’t need to be talking in the past tense here - about the community was its diversity. Each member of the community really did bring a different perspective which contributed to a better and greater whole. I think the leaderless period intensified that because it gave everyone a greater opportunity to shape the fellowship, and that people had to step up and provide and participate.

As I said in my last post, Godly diversity can be creative strength. There is a richness and an authenticity which comes with being part of a fellowship with a variety of viewpoints. A diversity of approaches means a diversity of ways of experiencing God, and each person who lead worship or brought an insight to the fellowship also brought a new way of experiencing God, and I think that’s tremendously, tremendously valuable.

But I spoke about creative strength because I think that’s a very apposite term for this kind of community, as I found - speaking personally here - that a pressure soon built up to be continually creative. Coming from a church in Oxford with a high percentage of science-background people, the sheer artiness of this kind of fellowship (perhaps more the other emerging churches I’ve come across than the one I was part of) was at times quite daunting. I found I was feeling a pressure (and I’ll admit it was probably self-imposed, but I felt it nonetheless) to do something new and different and exciting and creative every single time, and that’s extremely hard to maintain. It almost means that there is a barrier to entry for non-arty people, and I don’t really like barriers to entry to the church.

Diversity of approach also means that you can’t get away with theological shortcuts. Where everyone’s coming from the same position, common assumptions can quickly become sloppy thinking. Where everyone’s coming from slightly different positions, at least one person is going to say “did you really mean that?” and I appreciated that challenge on a number of occasions.

But it also means that it’s incredibly difficult to get the community as a whole to agree on any common vision, common goal or common approach to anything outside itself… or, well, anything at all really. And we could be all postmodern and say that’s wonderful and let a thousand flowers bloom, but I do not believe that is an approach that a church has the liberty of taking. I’m convinced that the entire point of the Church as a whole, and churches as expressions of the Church, is to align itself with the mission of God, and that requires a certain amount of unity and all-pulling-together.

Instead of doing that, saying “we support each other as we all take our respective parts in the mission of God” (which seemed to be the answer I got when I questioned one or two people about this) seems to be a very individualistic approach to community. And for a community which talks a lot about being community, I always found this kind of individualism baffling. I think there is a sense in which people feel that they do not wish to be dictated to, and that’s very typical of the generations involved - but that’s not how community works either. Community is nothing if not giving up of yourself for the whole.

A collection of overswung pendulums

I think I have learnt from this that leaderless churches find it very difficult to maintain an outward focus. Without that outward focus, a missional community just becomes a community which talks about mission. Or sometimes, not even that.

I think one major reason why there was a difficulty in getting people moving together in a missional direction is that, when any suggestion of a missional activity was made, due to the makeup and history of those involved, there was immediate suspicion of activity per se. The argument was made that “we should focus on being, as well as doing.” Yes! Absolutely! This is important, and a welcome reminder than in an achievement-focused society, the Church should be pointing towards a counter-cultural alternative, and to the truth that God values the person as they are. Yes! Definitely!

The problem comes when by “as well as”, you mean “instead of.”

I feel that the Fresh Expressions experiment has done well to reintegrate those disaffected with traditional church models back into the Church, and so those of us (myself included) who have been disappointed, burnt, and abused by Evangelical churches have a place in which to be authentically post-Evangelical. This is surely a great thing.

But just like the newly minted non-smoker who rails against the evils of his former life, the post-Evangelical has a habit of throwing out bathwater and baby alike. Evangelicals sing cheesy songs; we’re not going to sing any songs at all. (Anything goes, absolutely anything, in post-Evangelical worship, apart from pulling out a guitar and singing some worship songs. “Has there ever been a community of God’s people who don’t sing?”, someone asked me. What a good question.) Evangelicals read the Bible; we’re going to look at pictures. Evangelicals get really heavy about telling people about Jesus; we’re not going to tell anyone about Jesus.

Evangelicals are always wanting us to doing stuff; we’re not going to do stuff. And so church becomes a place where nothing happens.

I am over-exaggerating, but not by much.

In a way, all theology is reactionary, in that theological advance always comes from correcting the excesses of the past. There is nothing wrong with this. Every Barth needs a Bultmann.

But when you replace the excesses of the past with the excesses of the present, your concern is probably not theology but culture. The post-Evangelical church is too busy fighting the battle against Evangelicalism, defining itself by what it is not, to realise that it’s supposed to be on the same side.

Doubt and the lowest common denominator

When you have a people who are diverse but at the same time are trying to rehabilitate their faith away from experiences of their past, there is a tendency to establish community in a way that is most comfortable for all involved. We, of course, want our church to be somewhere that people are welcomed and accepted, particularly if their experience of church has been somewhere that people are judged and found wanting. (Again, I include myself in this category.) We should therefore construct a church in which everyone feels accepted.

Really? Tolerance, the acceptance of everyone as they are, is the shibboleth of our day - so much so that pointing out that this generation is tolerant of everything but intolerance is seen as clichéd, which is itself a clever way of avoiding having to deal with the substantive point. But tolerance-above-all was not the way in which Jesus operated. He was gleefully politically incorrect. He was an equal-opportunity offender. He put everybody’s nose out of joint, whether he was railing against the hypocrisy of the religious (we like that bit!) or railing against the unbelief and obstinance of his own people (we’re not so sure about that bit!) or calling foreigners “dogs”, (there must be a more reasonable explanation for that bit!) being around Jesus meant being challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. A church which has no bite is a church which has no relevance.

On the topic of the lowest common denominator, I should note that emerging churches like to hide their lack of bite by claiming it as almost a mystical thing, a revival of reverence for the place of doubt in the Christian life. On which point James Smith speaks for me:

[T]here is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can’t believe it, it can’t be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let’s come up with a rendition we can believe in. But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts–but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with.

Doubting an offensive God makes sense; but using doubt as an excuse to make God inoffensive robs God of his Godness, in that it tries to conform Him to our standards, rather than the other way around.

It was - and is - really, really good

After all I have said, I am equally aware that the search for a perfect church will get me nowhere, and drive me further away from people that I love, which of course is not my aim. There’s some amazing things happening in and through and because of the people I hung out with for two years, and I want to be a part of what they’re doing next, or as much as I can from this distance. I am envious, and I am disappointed that I can’t be as much a part of it as I would like. (Especially now I hear some fantastic things going on right now!)

They say every harsh word needs ten words of affirmation, and so I’m afraid that the words of this post don’t really convey what I do feel about being part of that church for the time we were involved. But to all of you there, I love you; I really think you are the future of the Church in the UK; and I shall keep looking over from here to see what I can learn from you. There is far more for me to learn than to critique. Keep going. Send me a postcard.