The Emerging Church Promise and Failure Part 2

In my last post, I looked at how the emerging church movement is trying to re-construct Christianity in regards to praxis, or the living of a Christian life. Today I’m going to look at the emerging church’s approach to doxology.

Part 2: Doxology or “Doing” Church”

To start, I want to acknowledge that I’m using the word “Doxology” in an unorthodox way. Technically doxology refers to a statement of praise and glory to God. The two we are most familiar with are “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen” and the commonly sung:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

For my purposes, I am using the word doxology in the sense which Geoffrey Wainwright expresses it in the title to his 1978 book: Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life. Doxology is how we live out our theological belief in Christianity when we gather and worship, pray and meditate and then take that experience out into the world we live in. J.I. Packer in his book God Has Spoken (which I haven’t actually read, for the record) puts it this way:

“Theology, as I constantly tell my students, is for doxology: the first thing to do with it is to turn it into praise and thus honor the God who is its subject, the God in whose presence and by whose help it was worked out. Paul’s summons to sing and make music in one’s heart to the Lord is a word for theologians no less than for other people (Ephesians 5:19). Theologies that cannot be sung (or prayed for that matter) are certainly wrong at a deep level, and such theologies leave me, in both senses, cold: cold-hearted and uninterested.”

So for this discussion I am using the word doxology to indicate those ways that we as Christians practice our faith when we worship, gather together for church, meditate, read scripture or engage in other spiritual disciplines.

One of the features of Protestantism is that it is reactionary in nature. Martin Luther started the Protestant tradition from the beginning in reaction to the excesses and heresies of the Roman Catholic Church. Today there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations. All of them, for the most part, were started in reaction to some perceived error in preceding churches. And this reaction usually took the form of moving the doxology of protestant churches towards sometimes extreme minimalism.

I believe that the drive towards minimalism in our spiritual practices is largely due to a legitimate concern over idolotry. Idolotry takes place whenever something other than God becomes central to our lives, particularly our spiritual lives. At various times, there has been a tendency for people center their spiritual lives around the church, sacraments, saying the right prayers or rituals rather than around God. This is precisely the stuff of schisms which take place in denominations. Typically, the reaction has been to shun the practice which has been the focus of idolotry. So churches which made professing a particular creed central to the faith give rise to non-creedal churches. Churches which are sacramental and proclaim the need to participate in particular church approved sacraments and rituals give rise to non-sacramental churches. So on and so forth. The end result being sanctuaries which are nearly bereft of adornment, Sunday gatherings are pared down to singing and listening to a sermon and communion practiced as rarely as the church feels it can get away with it. I personally think it is quite safe to say that this tendency to shed ideas and practices as the result of idolotry was sometimes correct, but often resulted in throwing away perfectly legitimate, useful practices. The fact of the matter is that people have a natural tendency towards idolotry. Generally it is not the practice itself which is the problem, but the fact that it is often easier and safer to depend on what is known and seen than it is to turn to the Living God. At any rate, all this minimalising hasn’t conquered this human tendency towards idolotry. There are no shortage of Christians, even those who attend the most austere, fundamentalist churches who believe down to their toes that some aspect of their spiritual practice, whether it be reading scriptures for an allotted amount of time each day, tithing or keeping drums out of the sanctuary which are absolutely necessary for a right relationship with God. The answer isn’t to get rid of any of these practices (unless they really are prohibited by scripture or moral law), but to deal with the reality of the human tendency towards idolotry.

To my mind, this is a good part of what makes the emerging church movement so interesting and hopeful. The emerging church being, as I said in my last post, the black sheep off-spring of evangelicalism is an heir to the same reactionary tendency which has always been present in protestantism. However, rather than continuing the drive towards minimalism, there is a strong tendency in the emerging church movement to re-examine what has been pared off over the years and see what gems there may be to be found. Instead of minimizing, they are moving towards accessorizing, if you will.

While this tendency in the emerging church is sometimes derided as “smells and bells”, it is my opinion that this instinct towards expanding what is useful and allowable in the context of our spiritual and corporate practice is much more faithful to the nature of God than the austerity of many protestant churches. Because the emerging church movement strives to be “holistic” ( a word I hate, but that’s a whole other issue), they are seeking to re-examine our spiritual practices without compartmentalizing the human or the human experience into spiritual and other. Protestantism, especially in the last couple hundred years has tended to be focused on words and theology (or ideas). Other parts of the human experience such as art, poetry, work, the natural world, etc were often seen as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. The emerging church movement starts with the understanding that God created all things – including human passions, appreciation for beauty, a drive for meaningful work, our bodies and all those things which are part of the human experience. By reducing our spiritual practices to words (sermons, scripture, books) and ideas (theology), protestantism has reduced the spiritual life to something which in no way reflects or encompasses the richness of the world which God has created for His glory.

In trying to correct this imbalance, emerging churches are opening the door to areas which the Roman and Orthodox Catholic Church have always understood to be an appropriate, even holy expression of faith such as art, story telling, meditation and dance. Their services often try to be multi-sensory. There may be incense burned. People may move around the room or walk a labyrinth. Someone may perform dance. Art may be created or displayed. Poetry may be shared. There may be a sermon of sorts, but since there is a particular emphasis on the priesthood of believers (“you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” – 1 Peter 2:9), the pastor or teacher is not given primacy.

Aside from making room for a fuller range of experiences and practices, the emerging church movement, while often perceived as progress and suspected as liberal, is quite conservative in its approach to doxology. By which I mean that they have respect for those who went before us in the Christian faith and the practices which have been found useful to the faith by others who went before us. While typically protestants have valued spontaneous prayers, the emergent church has been willing to look at prayers which our Christian fore bearers found useful in directing the believer towards God. Certainly, there’s a lot of junk out there, but there are also tried and true gems which can sometimes give us words to express what is in our hearts better than we are able to do ourselves. While practices among those in the emerging church movement vary, it is rather common to that there is greater attention paid to traditional liturgical calenders which if nothing else help us to concentrate on a more complete, and full range of theological issues than the more helter-skelter approach common in evangelical churches. Old, discarded rituals may tried, after being re-worked if appropriate. Meditation such as lectio divina and walking of labyrinths are popular. Books of prayer from traditions such as the Anglican and Orthodox churches are often used.

Some of these practices raise suspicions of other Christians because they tend to be extra-biblical, in that they are not specifically mentioned in the bible. Some of them have their origins in the pagan world, further raising suspicions as pagan and occult or satanic are often seen as interchangeable. However, I think that this, again, places limits on how God works which God never intended. I think that the story of Paul preaching to the men of Athens in Acts 17 should inform our thinking on the intersection Christianity and other religions. Paul says: ““Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ~to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” So first, he identifies their desire to worship the god that they do not know with a desire to worship God, not satan. He goes on to say: “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” Here Paul is quoting the pagan religious poetry to demonstrate truth about God. If it were correct that we ought to regard everything pagan or unchristian as satanic in origin, there is no way that truth could be found within it or that Paul would be using it to demonstrate the glory of God. Just because something is not Christian or biblical in origin, does not mean that it is not useful in pointing us to God. After all, God made the pagan people just as He made the Jewish and Christian people. If His glory is written on all of creation, then we should not be surprised when we find something in creation which points back to Him, even if it is non-Christians who first bring it to light.

At any rate, now that I’ve managed to get off on a long tangent about pagan influences in Christianity, let me come back to my main point. I believe that at this point in time, evangelism and much of protestant practice has inherited a doxology which has been stripped of much of the variety and richness of the human experience. It seems to me that the emerging church movement is performing a service to the practice of the Christian faith within the protestant tradition by looking to ancient traditions and the full range of human experiences and passions for a robust, engaging, useful and meaningful doxology. Some of what they are doing will likely fail. There are probably good reasons why at some point churches began providing chairs and stopped meeting in private homes or businesses for worship. However, I am very hopeful that they will be successful in demonstrating a doxology which engages us not just through words and ideas, but through all those things which God has given us – our senses, our bodies, our creative drive. I also hope that the long estrangement between the protestant world and our fore bearers in faith will begin to closed. In scriptures, God exhorts Christians and Jews both to pass on what we know to our children, share it with our neighbors, pass it on from generation to generation so that those who follow can build on what we have learned. Sometimes those who went before us built idolatrous temples to their own foolishness. However, there were also beautiful stairways leading closer to the heavens built. By exploring these temples and stairways, the emerging church movement may well be providing many Christians with something very precious.

Coming up . . .

In the next few days I hope to get out the 3rd part of this series. I will be looking at what I think the emerging church’s achilles heal is and a radical corrective to this weakness. If you would like to be notified when I post the last part of the series, you can click on the orange button above to subscribe to my RSS Feed.

BTW. . . I know that this post needs editing. But it’s long. And it’s late. And it’s taken me forever to get it up already, so I’ll get to it later. This is why I’m a writer, not an editor. Sorry!

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2 thoughts on “The Emerging Church Promise and Failure Part 2

  1. Pingback: A prayer to begin your day with « The Upside Down World

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