Adapting faith in a changing culture
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
The author of Hebrews wrote these words as an encouragement to a church in troubled times. Surrounded by persecution and religious intolerance, Christianity emerged on this foundation: Jesus Christ.
Now, consider the church in the 21st century. We Christians profess faith in “the same” Jesus Christ as 1st-century believers. Jesus’ work of securing salvation and revealing God’s kingdom extends through history. Therefore, we have certainty in Christ. The New Testament and subsequent history, however, reveal how quickly Christians extend certainty beyond Jesus. Christians give the practices of the church – organization, leadership, corporate worship, and even theology – the same timeless importance as Christ.
This brings us to the emerging church.
Through provocative – even prophetic – questioning, the emerging church delivers a reminder that the practices of the church aren’t eternal, but bound to time and space. As such, changes in culture affect the church’s expression in the world.
In recent decades, drastic shifts in Western culture have influenced the church: technology, diversity, globalization, and postmodernism are just a few of these changes. These developments have altered the way people approach questions of truth, meaning, and morals. People are skeptical of Christianity when right belief is stressed above emotion or experience. The emerging church is an attempt to adapt to these changes in a manner that is faithful to the message of the gospel in any cultural situation.
Begun in the U.K. and North America during the 1990s, the emerging church is a diverse movement born primarily out of frustration over the evangelical church’s perceived inability to adapt to these cultural shifts. “Emerging catches into one term the global reshaping of how to ‘do church’ in postmodern culture,” says advocate Scot McKnight. “It has no central offices, and it is as varied as evangelicalism itself.”
This diversity of the movement cannot be overstated, although it can be quite confusing. Speakers, books, blogs, and podcasts provide a broad and oftentimes scattered collection of emerging church ideas. It’s clearly a movement, not an organization. There is no centralizing structure or body of beliefs. Yet, through publication and publicity, individuals – most notably, Brian McLaren – have become representative of the movement.
Similarly, Emergent Village, a network of church leaders in the U.S. and U.K., is but one group among many worldwide. Much energy has been spent refuting McLaren or Emergent Village without realizing they are only two pieces of a much larger emerging church puzzle.
The movement is far broader than these two examples. So we need to be careful whom we label “emerging” lest we caricature a movement that is more dynamic than a few individuals. Jim Belcher, an emerging church critic, affirms the movement’s purpose: “a church in mission, pursuing the kingdom of God in the midst of a changing culture.”
In adapting to a changing culture, the emerging church uses many key terms that reflect their values: questioning, collaboration, incarnational, participation, culture, postmodern, decentralized, flexible, organic, tension, rhythm, justice, kingdom, community, conversation, deconstruction, narrative, mystery, missional, story, provocative, prophetic, virtue, creativity. This list is far from exhaustive!
What’s your response to these ideas? Have emerging church ideas percolated through your church or leadership teams in recent years? Has conflict typically followed at the very mention of the “e” word in your church? Personally, do you find these concepts exhilarating? Threatening? Both?
These diverse ideas and varied responses often lead to the movement being misunderstood, or worse, rejected altogether. Yet, if we rightly understand three key themes in the emerging church, I believe the movement has much to offer the 21st-century church.
The emerging church starts from a place of critique – being “consciously and deliberately provocative” in calling the church to change, as Scot McKnight writes. Nothing is out of bounds for question and critique. The movement encourages an honest assessment of Christian belief and practice, recognizing the complex development of the church over the centuries.
This prophetic tone offers a healthy challenge to a Western church prone to accepting the status quo of modern culture. Thus, the critique should not be written off as merely postmodern skepticism. Even most critics of emerging church recognize value in the critique the movement brings.
At times, however, the movement risks judgmentalism and arrogance. There is a danger in being defined solely by what the emerging church is against: at times, carrying a tone of disdain that hinders the very type of open dialogue its proponents advance.
As well, the constant questioning can become an end in itself. Thoughtful questions need thoughtful answers. In their questioning, the emerging church risks neglecting the answers. And while not the case for all emerging church leaders, this constant critique can render any certainty impossible, leading to relativism – truth relegated to the individual’s personal opinions.
Beyond critique is emerging church emphasis on participation. Faith is about the church participating in the Kingdom of God in the world. How faith is lived out is just as important as how faith is understood. Orthodoxy (right belief) requires orthopraxy (right actions).
N.T. Wright’s seminal scholarship provides a biblical framework for many emerging church advocates when it comes to understanding the role of the church in the world. The church is by nature missional, existing to love God and love others in any and every situation. In a post-Christian culture, this missional impetus leads Christians, as I like to say, “to be where the people are” as opposed to waiting for people to come to them.
Such participation with God’s kingdom recognizes the wideness of God’s grace in history and in the world. Exploring ancient spiritual practices and interacting with the rich diversity of historical theology guides many emerging church people as they seek to be faithful participants in God’s kingdom.
Creativity and the arts reflect God’s fingerprint in creation. The emerging church celebrates these positive aspects of culture. They value cultural relevance. Although, as Paul Doerksen helpfully warns, if not careful, such endeavours can easily become “an obsession with novelty.” New shouldn’t be sought for “newness” sake. The church, rather, should seek a culturally appropriate local expression as each context warrants.
Participation with God’s kingdom requires the church to adapt. But faced with the emerging church’s vision for faith and life, many traditional evangelical churches are hesitant to accept this call to adapt, particularly when it comes to theology. Why should the church adapt its faith in Christ, who the Bible says is timeless (Hebrews 13:8)?
There’s no denying the emerging church adapts theologically. As McKnight admits, “The emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).” This is where observers become uncomfortable. And rightly so. At times emerging church ideas appear “revisionist.” The church too easily mirrors culture instead of being a mirror to culture. In the quest for theological relevance, the emerging church needs to admit this ongoing danger.
Yet when it comes to theology, not all change is wrong or unbiblical. Various developments in the broad field of biblical scholarship combined with openness to the Holy Spirit’s leading have shifted beliefs in several areas of ecclesiology throughout history (e.g., church leadership, spiritual gifts, slavery). Christians throughout history have adjusted language and imagery to contextualize the gospel across cultures and situations.
In assessing the emerging church, we need to determine what type of theological adaptation is happening. In most cases, I’d suggest the emerging church adapts their ecclesiology without changing the foundation – Jesus Christ. Hebrews 13:8 still applies. The growing sensitivity to an engaging ecumenism (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Anabaptist) is but one example where I see this balanced adaptation occurring in the emerging church.
MBs and the emerging church
MBs have much in common with the emerging church. Our MB Confession of Faith roots the nature of the church in the person of Jesus Christ. We are “a people called by God through Jesus Christ” joined together in local expressions as a “covenant community” – God’s people in the world. MBs have always promoted participation – with Jesus and with one another – echoing the missional impetus of the emerging church. And as our Anabaptist forebears exemplified by challenging the beliefs of the reformers, at times, provocation is part of this mission. Also, our participation in mission as a diverse global family reflects many of the emerging church values.
Though we have not always been successful, our history as Mennonite Brethren testifies to cultural adaptation. Our strong views on evangelism and mission have often led to a creative and subversive engagement with culture, both locally and globally. MBs have been hesitant to allow structures to drive our churches in practice and theology, choosing instead to seek what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus in every time and place.
Not unlike the emerging church, then, MBs are adaptive by nature. And our legacy of cooperation with other evangelical traditions reflects the collaborative spirit of the emerging church. There is nothing new here.
Interestingly, many emerging church leaders make Anabaptist theology central to their developing beliefs. The centrality of Jesus’ life and teaching, a peace witness, and the priesthood of all believers have been influential in the development of emerging church theology. Gareth Brandt is optimistic: “It’s almost like the Anabaptist movement has been submerged all these years and is finally emerging!” Alan Stucky, a U.S. Mennonite pastor, offers a more sobering thought: “We may have to admit that some in the emerging church look more like the Anabaptists than we do.” A challenge indeed!
MBs also offer a challenge for the evolving emerging church. We have 150 years of identifying with evangelicalism. It’s not always easy balancing our Anabaptist history with our evangelical zeal. We value both. Our journey for unity as a diverse MB community should offer hope and challenge to the diverse emerging church, generally quick to reject evangelicalism. Emergence, I hope, doesn’t have to be divisive and non-denominational.
Overall, I think there is much value in the emerging church movement. Like any new movement, no doubt, caution and critique is warranted. Yet, in many ways, the gospel is always emerging – in people, in cultures, around the world – as the church in all its diversity seeks to be faithful to its one foundation, Jesus Christ.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11).
–David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. He blogs at davidwarkentin.blogspot.com.
|Belcher, Jim. Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Brandt, Gareth. “Strange Bedfellows: Anabaptism and the Emergent Church.” MB Herald (October 2008): 11–12.
Doerksen, Paul. “The Air is Not Quite Fresh: Emerging Church Ecclesiology.” Direction (Spring 2010): 3–18.
McKnight, Scot. “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.” Christianity Today (February 2007): 34–39.
Stucky, Alan. “Anabaptism and Emergence: Collision or Convergence.” Direction (Spring 2010): 19–31.