Tuesday, October 11, 2005

BaldBlogging on the Emerging Church, Part 2

While diverse in local expression, the Emergent church in the United States (and larger Emerging church) comprises transdenominational communities of Christ followers who aim to be historically conscious, biblically sound, culturally creative, artistically expressive, doctrinally responsible, and faithfully missional. Collectively, the movement embraces history (in large measures from the early church or medieval church); teaches the scriptures (often dialogically or through stories; not necessarily in an expositional way); supports creativity and even improvisational kinds of worship (displayed through art or other creative expressions); and attempts to speak to a generation engaged in various kinds of pilgrimage, spiritual or otherwise (in missional ways).

The transdenominational nature of Emergent communities means that members of many of these churches within the United States come from a variety of evangelical and mainline backgrounds, or even Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox backgrounds (I would presume), and even those unaffiliated with any church whatever. This also means that Emergent churches are by and large independent churches, communities of faith not part of any formal denominational structure or body. Many Emergent pastors, leaders, and practitioners, however, meet annually at meetings and conventions (such as this week's Emergent Gathering; anyone blogging about this?), while others in the movement host local meetings, known formally as "cohorts." These modes of meeting and contexts for conversation, often initiated and/or announced electronically through web sites and blogs, indicate a desire for authentic community (identified and articulated beautifully in Aaron Flores's recent Master's thesis from Vanguard University), and conversations sometimes include discussion with those outside of the Emergent movement.1

Now some thoughts about what I take to be one of the most important trajectories of the Emerging/Emergent movement.

Those in the Emergent community often describe cultural engagement, what some call evangelism, as a "missional" activity. In fact, in the literature of the Emergent church one is less likely to come across references to evangelistic strategies or schemes; rather, one more often reads about missional modes of cultural interaction, and carefully defined statements about living within postmodern culture. Several theologians and thinkers illustrate the Emergent understanding(s) of missional.

In a recent essay, "The Church as a Missional Community," theologian Darrell Guder argues that the term missional avoids direct reference to words like "missionary," a controversial word with imperialistic overtones. "The term missional," Guder explains, "is an attempt to move the discussion beyond too narrow definitions of mission as merely one among the various programs of the church, and to find ways to think about the church's calling and practice today in light of the fact of the multicultural global church."2

Similarly, in A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) Emergent leader Brian McLaren suggests that the term missional "probably reflects a kind of postcolonial embarrassment about the term missionary, which has too often been associated with a colonial version of Christianity that inadvertently (one hopes) exported (and imposed) Euro-American culture right along with the gospel of Jesus....it gets us beyond the us-them thinking...that lead [sic] to prejudice, exclusion, and ultimately religious wars."3

Jesus historian Scot McKnight echoes Guder and McLaren and describes the global implications of a missional outlook. The missional church "breaks down the barrier between secular and sacred," writes McKnight, "between the spiritual and the secular, and between the holy and the profane. If the former conceptualization of the gospel was in the terms of "come out from among them" or "be not of this world," the missional Christians are asking how to be among them and of this world in order to participate in what God is doing."4 Describing Jesus's "missional discourse" from Matthew 9-11, McKnight explains that missional work "incarnates" Christ as Christians extend grace into their contexts and settings. By so doing, McKnight describes, "the missional person finds herself or himself on the border, in liminality, and that means being forced to make decisions never made before. Forced to do things never done before. Forced to engage in situations never engage before. Force[d] to try new things and see new things and say new things - and it is not easy to know what is right sometimes."5

To be missional, then, according to Guder, McLaren, and McKnight, is to possess a global outlook attuned to the diverse work of the Spirit, and to frame cultural engagement in more organic or relational ways, prizing dialogue above confrontation, and creativity over programmatic engagement. In my estimation, the missional posture of the Emergent church, its global-consciousness-in-liminality, offers a way for the movement to dialogue with Christianity in global terms and on a global scale - something about which I will write several posts down the road.

The next post will reflect on the Emergent engagement with postmodernism.

1For a list of meetings and links to local cohorts, visit Emergent Village. The Emergent-US group, along with other sponsors, will host theologian Miroslav Volf in February 2006 in the "2006 Theological Conversation." One hopes that future conversations/consultations will also include formal exchanges with theologians and/or practitioners from Latin America, Africa, or Asia.

2Darrell L. Guder, "The Church as Missional Community," in eds. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 116. Guder places the concept of being missional in the context of ecclesiology and illuminates much of the discussion about missional within the Emerging church: "Our ecclesiologies of institutional maintanence and the tending of savedness are not adequate to the task that faces us now. We cannot evangelize under the assumption that most of what it means to be a practicing Christian is already handled by one's being born and raised in so-called Christian North America - so that all one needs to do is accept Jesus, join an church and perhaps start tithing. Nor can we evangelize under the assumption that our culture prepares people for Christ, so that we merely need to recognize the "felt needs" that people bring to church with them" (121).

3Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 106, 109.

4Scot McKnight, "Pro Missional," weblog post , July 13, 2005, (accessed July 2005).

5Scot McKnight, "Jesus on Being Missional 1, 7," weblog posts, August 28 and September 3, 2005, (accessed September 2005).


Brian Russell said...
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Brian Russell said...

Interesting post. I think that the term "missional" is sound and arises out of the biblical witness itself, beginning in the Creation accounts of Genesis. I applaud this reorientation by some thinkers and churches around missiology. Yet, I would want to add at least two additional components to any emerging ecclesiology: holiness and community. I am not sure that the church can be truly missional (if missional means to represent and introduce the God revealed through Jesus Christ to the world) without holiness and community.

Thanks for the conversation.

Phil said...

I agree with your additions. How do you define "community."