Over the past decade there has been growing controversy about “a new way of doing church.”
The debate has been generational in nature. Many of our sons and daughters are forming or joining congregations that don’t look or sound like our kind of church. Yet, they are likely to tell us that they are just trying to be authentic followers of Jesus and that many of us have been unfair in our criticism of them. See, for instance, New Zealander Andrew Jones’ eloquent defense of these emerging groups at “What I Would Say to the Young American Emerging Churches.”
The emergent phenomena, however, has been marked by bad blood. Some members of the traditional church have characterized these communities as critical, culturally obsessed, biblically illiterate, and more interested in taking the church apart than in building it.
From where I sit, seems to me that what is needed is the kind of wisdom that some of the first church leaders showed when they called in Paul and Barnabas and listened to their story (Acts 15). Here’s some of what I think we would hear.
Many emerging churches affirm:
- The tri-unity of God as a basis for valuing community rather than self-centered individualism.
- Faith as a conversation and a journey rather than just a declaration and decision.
- Taking a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach to eternal salvation and social involvement; the letters of Paul and the Gospels of Jesus; our church and the kingdom of God.
- Seeing the church as a movement rather than just an organization.
- A desire to reach a generation largely untouched by traditional churches.
- Valuing creativity and variety in worship styles.
- Seeing spiritual leadership as a matter of example rather than authority and control.
- A willingness to think through the doctrines of the church rather than just taking for granted that their parents generation had it right.
- Living the Bible rather than just studying and defending it.
- Seeing not only the truth of God but also the mystery.
It’s important to understand, however that these values will often be expressed as a reaction to and sense of disillusionment with the churches of their parents’ generation.
Emerging communities often take issue with:
- Emphasizing the letters of Paul while ignoring the Gospels of Jesus.
- Condemning homosexuality and abortion while ignoring sins of pride, racial prejudice, greed, divisiveness, and hypocrisy.
- Defending doctrinal statements with anger and intimidation rather than with reason.
- Regarding arguable or possible implications of the Bible as absolutes and tests of orthodoxy.
- Interpreting the Bible as if it was written in our generation rather trying to understand what it meant in the times in which it was written.
- Preoccupation with prophetic scenarios while ignoring the needs of poverty and justice within our own church families and communities.
- Following male leadership that does not include or respect the needs and thoughts of women.
- Seeing church authority as a matter of hierarchy and control rather than example and servant attitudes.
- Viewing the church as an institution rather than as a community.
- Focusing on unchanging forms of worship rather than fresh expressions that reflect continual renewal.
- Attempts to marry the church to political power.
- Emphasis on professional clergy rather than encouraging whole-church participation.
- A failure of the traditional church to confront abusive patriarchy, warfare, and injustice.
- Efforts of the church to bring people in rather than going out to them.
- Outreach that sounds angry and condemning rather than embodying the attitudes and methods of Jesus.
- Teaching that focuses on texts and doctrines rather than on the story and stories of the Bible.
- Church leaders who cater to rich and powerful members
- Use of a code-language (church jargon) that self-identifies and self-authenticates insiders while remaining confusing or misleading to those outside of Christ.
- Attempts to maintain a theology that doesn’t leave room for the mystery of God
I’ll plan to follow up with some of the possible pitfalls of these young groups. But seems to me that those of us who represent the parent/traditional church need to be ready not only to take a hard look at ourselves, but also be ready to encourage, applaud, and pray for those who say they are more concerned about following Jesus in an authentic way than just going through the motions.