‘Emerging church’. Yawn?

Is anyone else bored of this ‘emerging church’ malarkey? As with many words which used to excite me  (‘missional’, ‘incarnational’, ‘holistic’ etc etc), this has rather lost its pizzazz, which perhaps says more about my fickleness than the speed at which innovation becomes institution. The point is I wasn’t enthralled by the prospect of this talk: ‘What kind of church is emerging? (and what is happening to the one we had?’,  mainly because I was at Greenbelt and – in my intellectual snobbery (which a friend rather embarrassingly called me on later that weekend) – I thought I knew what they were going to say ( – new monasticism, liturgy and candles, church plants on housing estates, peace meals, messy church etc). I would respond “yes, but…” and get irritated.


However, Rosie was going and I’ll always choose to hang out with her, so off we went. I warmed to the speaker instantly when he said he usually avoided the term ‘emerging church’ because of its associations with internal Christian squabbles, and I listened as he raised this question: who (which communities, networks and neighbourhoods) will never encounter Jesus and his kingdom if you just do what you’re doing now? I re-engaged because I was cheered by his focus on people in need of Christ and a world in need of his kingdom and by the speaker’s awareness of the multiple and diverse connectivities within which we move.


So what does/should church look like to make this happen? Out comes the word ‘missional’, but with a recognition of its overuse and a re-rooting in the idea of following the pioneering Spirit into contexts where he’s doing stuff already. It’s not about innovation for innovation’s sake, or chucking out tradition because it’s old, or rolling out a franchise model of church expecting it to work everywhere just because it works somewhere. Rather it’s about figuring out what a flesh and blood community looks like right here, right now.


In doing so, we may need to give up – for the sake of others – ways of ‘doing church’ which have nurtured us in the past. It’s not about shaping church to suit the dispositions of its members or forcing it into something we think ‘others’ will like. (Using these words with a pinch of salt,) it’s ‘integral’, ‘holistic’, and Christians are evangelised through the process. It’s real and grounded, and my heart sings. It’s also hard.


Doable? Yes, but when we’re engaged with others in a costly way, we need to be deeply rooted in communities of mutual accountability which keep us on track through our distortions and pressures. This is formation of disciples for the transformation of communities and it’s a lifelong process: we don’t go to church, we are church. And just when I want to cop out and let community carry me, he kicks back with a call to daily disciplines of faith. Am I training myself through the gospels to think incarnationally and learn what Jesus actually did in his context? Do I think I’ve grasped him or am I continually astounded? I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question because I feel a bit of a second-hand slacker at the mo.


He tells us to get going and I’m well up for it. Start without knowing where it will end up. Create opportunities for people to step closer through hospitality and friendship. Pursue growth all round. I don’t want to fall into that trap of harking back to things which ‘worked’ previously, but the seasons when I’ve seen most growth and forward-movement, in myself and others, are ones when groups of us, at different places on the faith/scepticism spectrum, have gathered regularly for food and conversation, chucked out the blueprint, got stuck in to life togtether, and created space for alternatives. I crave that again.


The talk is ending and speaker-dude reminds us that solitary confinement isn’t the way to flourishing. This isn’t about a Greenbelty sub-set which goes it alone because it’s misunderstood or relieved to escape. This is about connection to the wider church, finding unity in shared weakness not competing strengths, and demonstrating that the gospel is about reconciliation and love across disagreement. We have no permission to diss each other or walk away. And this universal church should be prophetic, offering an (imperfect) hint of a believable future to people and a world which lack hope and purpose.


Emerging church? It turned out I wasn’t yawning after all. I was even making peace with concepts and words that had become tiresome, partly by overuse (my own included) and partly by recent experiences of a church whose fresh expressions were a stressful struggle. I was actually quite convicted and realigned, with a renewed love for the church and ready to get stuck in. Send me!


At that moment, a friend turned her pensive/quizzical face towards me and said she didn’t agree. How can he stand there and say that people lack hope? Is the world really messed up? People are happy enough, surely? Funny how we heard the same thing so differently. If you can spare £3.50 to buy the talk and 45 minutes to listen to it, I’d be interested to know what you reckon.


What, I wondered, would someone outside the church think of all this? Aitch and I touched on that question later as we sat in the Tiny Tea Tent sipping our chais in a festivally kind of way. As someone who doesn’t see herself as a person in need of Christ or as living in a world in need of his kingdom, what and where – if anything or anywhere – would the church need to be, do, or come, to induce her to enter or even approach? We mulled that one over and chatted about friends who are now – unexpectedly perhaps – participating in church communities. How has that happened? Is it a desire for community or something more? Is it just the done thing in certain contexts? Could they live with or without it? I’d love to find out.


Whatever the answers, I was enjoying the space to explore and dispute these things, and thankful for time away with friends who live, laugh and care and won’t settle for mediocrity. Maybe it was a bit of a bubble, fuelled by Goan fish curry and heightened by the tiredness that comes from sleeping under canvas, but I headed home with renewed enthusiasm for translating this stuff into normal life. Anyone else fancy coming along for the ride?


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