Over the last couple of months, I have been looking into something called the “Emerging Church” movement. This movement seems to be seeking to reform the evangelical church in light of the failures of the evangelical movement to bear transformational fruit in the lives of individuals and the larger community.
There are things that are happening, being talked about and experimented with in the Emerging Church movement which I think are very, very good for the church body as a whole. I can easily see a time when the work and ideas germinating today in the Emerging Church movement will become extremely influential in Christianity. However, I am also concerned that ultimately, they are setting themselves up for failure. Their influence, it seems to me, may end up being one of style rather than the radical transformation of the Christian life and church which they seek and which the gospel exhorts us too.
Before I get to what I think are the seeds of their failure, I want to discuss what I think they are getting right. The Emerging Church movement tends to be focused on two areas: praxis and doxology. Praxis being how we live as Christians. Doxology being concerned with how we “do” church through our services, prayers and other communal activities. In Evangelism attention to these two areas of Christianity has tended to be thin gruel. Praxis meant don’t sin and doxology meant sing, listen to a sermon and pass out grape juice and bad bread once a month. As the black sheep offspring of the Evangelical movement, Emerging Churchers are taking these areas apart and trying to completely reconstruct them into gourmet meals using both experimentation and borrowing from ancient wisdoms.
I am going to do a three part series on what I think the Emerging Church movement has to teach us as Christians, what I think the seeds of their undoing are and a new vision which could turn the Emerging Church movement into the transformational power I think the church needs today.
In Part 1 I will cover praxis. Part 2 will be on doxology and Part 3 will cover the flaw and new vision I have spoken of above.
Part 1: Praxis or Christian Living
In my experience I think it’s fair to say that conventional evangelism presents praxis as a series of rules for personal morality which we should be motivated to follow out of loyalty to God. Living differently than the rest of the world through this moral behavior should be the result of our faith, but isn’t often seen as an essential practice towards the development of a robust faith or as the basis for our faith. Unfortunately, statistical evidence seems to show that this hasn’t worked very well. Self identified evangelicals are just as likely to have sex outside of marriage, divorce, have addictions, etc as society as a whole.
We’ve done a bit better when it comes to the praxis of serving others. Christians and evangelicals in particular tend to get a bum rap when it comes to service to the least of these. Christians are more generous with their time and money than society as a whole. (See here.) Most food shelves, homeless shelters and soup kitchens are run by Christians. Many of the best job training programs, prison rehabilitation programs, drug treatment programs and elder care facilities are run by Christians.
However, while providing vital services to our society, I think one can argue that a society which is suffering from as many social ills as ours, is not being transformed by the presence of devout, and even charitable Christians in its midst. I believe that Emerging Church theology would point to an elevation of the individual as the center of a moral life as the source of this. In modern Christianity morality is personal morality with the benefits and consequences viewed in terms of the individual rather than the community. At its worst, evangelical charity can be a cover for the drive for the individuals being served to be “born again” rather than as a simple expression of concern for their well being in the here and now.
The Emerging Church movement seeks to define praxis more expansively and to place it, rather than heterodoxy (correct belief) near the center of what it means to be Christian. At his blog Jesus Creed, author and New Testament scholar Scot Mcknight identifies what he sees as three common concerns which Emerging Church thinkers view as under girding how Christians are to live:
First, the Emerging Movement calls people to goodness. Not in the sense of just being nice or being politically correct or being inoffensive, but reflecting the goodness of God in this world for the good of others and the good of the world. There is a commitment to do what is right (or to try to do what is right), to loving others as the Jesus Creed calls us to do, to exhibit moral goodness in all the relationships of life. . .
Second, the Emerging Movement calls people to graciousness. Grace in the sense of knowing that each of us, in one way or another, is a sinful . . . God’s grace embraces us so we can embrace others for their good and for the good of the world. . .
Third, the Emerging Movement operates with a summons to glorify God by being a manifestation of the way of Jesus in this world.”
I would say that Emerging Movement theology sees praxis as conforming our behaviors, thoughts and attitudes such that our lives become a loving, sacrificial service to the world. Our moral behavior isn’t motivated by so much by obedience, but by the fact that sin is inconsistent with an ethos which elevates love for ourselves and others above self-fulfillment and pleasure. This idea is also manifest in a strong emphasis on social justice which seeks to assist and serve those most in need not only through charitable works, but through the development of strings-free friendship and community.
I recently read someone who commented that the church was meant to be a little picture of the kingdom of God in the here and now. More over the Christian Church is not to be just a gift or resource for the believer, but part of God’s gift to the world. Jesus tells us that where ever two or more are gathered, he is there. The Emerging Church movement is trying to find ways to live out the gospel such that where ever they are, the presence of God is known, demonstrated and lived out. This is a much more expansive notion of praxis than the personal morality which is often served up as being the equivalent of living a Godly life in most modern churches.
I think that this concept of praxis could help to enrich the Christian church as it moves what it means to live a good Christian life beyond our own interiors -creating both new obligations and rewards. I think that it is this outward turning of praxis which could serve to reinvigorate the church with a sense of solidarity and shared purpose which is often completely missing from our churches.
In the first couple hundred years of Christianity, believers were compelled to sacrificial actions, from raising money for the Christians of Jerusalem in their time of need to staying to care for the sick during plagues, by a common sense of purpose. They saw themselves as called-out from the limits and norms of this life and set apart to serve as God’s servants to each other and His creation. Today it is rare to find individuals who are trying to live out this vision of the Christian life, much less whole communities of believers. It is my opinion that to the extent that the Emerging Church movement is able to influence the larger body to adopt a more outward, community driven focus for praxis, it will be a good thing for Christianity.