Church: Patterns of the emergent church: the more things change...

Churches Change

I grew up in a fairly traditional church. I remember spending a lot of time there. Sundays, for instance included Sunday school, morning worship, and evening service. When that was over we'd gather together at somebody's home and spend even more time together. I'm not complaining about it. It was a healthy environment and a great place to grow up. People liked being together. We loved God and for the most part we loved each other.

I was thinking about that church in relation to my current church family. I love my church. We're creative, dynamic, and purpose driven. But I do wonder, at times, what my children are going to remember about their experience there. We don't spend anywhere near as much time together as I remember growing up. Sundays are about morning worship. A program for younger children runs concurrently. We don't meet Sunday evening. We're all too tired for that, and after all, one sermon a week ought to be enough for anyone to have to live up to. We very rarely gather in each other's homes except for care groups, which are great, but not often as much fun as I remember my parents having with their friends. It seemed at times that we lived in each other's homes in those days.

Sunday morning worship is very professional now. In fact, we pay someone to lead it. My father used to lead worship in my childhood church. Nobody would have ever thought to pay him for it. It wouldn't have been right, because, frankly, he didn't do much. I remember he would grab the hymnal and jot down a few numbers on a piece of paper, make a few copies (handwritten) to give to the organist and pianist and away we would go. Of course the choir would be rehearsed, but the rest of it wasn't very complicated. Today I am consistently impressed by the quality and complexity of our worship times together. I'm grateful for the dedication and gifting of those who lead. Yet, I sometimes wonder how much we have gained for all the extra effort.

Now I am hearing that the church is changing, yet again. I must admit it is unsettling to think that the patterns we have developed might actually require ammendment. After all, we thought we were getting it right. Now these younger pastors come along suggesting change, and I start to feel almost ... old!

The Emergent Church

Just before his death, Mike Yaconelli described his own experience with church life and his attempt to redefine church. For him, church had become all too tiring.

"Real" churches owned buildings, had paid properly educated staff, and, primarily did stuff. Church was about doing. The predominant activist model of church meant that the Church was all about attending, working, teaching, visiting, participating, performing, measuring, evangelizing, watching, committing, reading, memorizing, volunteering, joinging. Church was all about performance, and if you didn't perform, the church had no place for you. The minister was the mediator between the congregation and God, the hub of the church wheel. The minister had the vision and the church existed to fulfill his vision. Participation in church activities determined one's value. The sermons, teachings, activities, and publications were all about what Jesus wanted us to do, what God expected us to do, what the gospel commanded us to do - as seen through the eyes of the minister. ... I was encouraged to follow Jesus, witness for Jesus, serve Jesus, believe in Jesus, trust in Jesus, love Jesus, stay close to Jesus, and honor Jesus, but I was never encouraged to be with Jesus, experience Jesus, notice Jesus, enjoy Jesus, or savor Jesus (Yaconelli 15).

Yaconelli see's today's church as a place that is focused on efficiency.

Today's modern service is orchestrated so nothing disturbing, uncomfortable, controversial, or shocking occurs. The music is edited to eliminate mediocre musicians or off-key singers. Solo numbers are assigned to the best. prayer requests are screened or relegated to the bulletin where they can be carefully worded. Testimonies are screened to guarantee they won't make anyone uncomfortable or go on for too long. ... The minister tells people what to do, and the people do it. Church is the reservoir of the uncomplicated. Jesus is the answer, the fixer, the problem solver, the protector. In other words, Jesus is the Chief Doer whose purpose is to do stuff for us, to satisfy our every need, want, and desire to prove to us that he is, in fact, God so we can go out and do stuff to prove we love God (17).

In response, Yaconelli planted a church that would have a hard time claiming legitimacy according to the standards of the day. In his new church, they don't edit their services. When someone wants to sing a song, they can sing the song, even if they have difficulty holding the key. When someone thinks they have a better illustration to end the sermon with, they are free to offer it. It is a less contrived, less controlled, more intimate sense of church, and it has some appeal. Yet, it is hard to imagine Yaconelli's church growing in to any substantial size. It sounds far too messy to appeal to many among us. But we might be surprised.

A whole new movement of church is springing up all over North America. Loosely and unofficially gathered under the label "emergent", churches are being formed that are, to use Leonard Sweet's language, more experiential, more participatory, more about images, and more communal in their nature (Sweet 215). According to Sweet, "Postmodern spirituality is different from modern spirituality. A continental drift of the soul has taken place whereby spirituality is less creedal, less propositional, more relational, and more sensory. Logic is no longer converting anyone - only the transforming experience of the living Christ (199)." Emerging churches and leaders have seen this shift and are responding in new and creative ways.

According to Dan Kimball, there is no single model of the emerging church. "Instead of one emerging-church model, there are hundreds and thousands of models of emerging churches (Kimball 14)." This is possible because the emerging church is "more of a mindset than a model." It is a way of thinking about church. "The emerging church must redefine how we measure success: by the characteristics of a kingdom-minded disciple of Jesus produced by the Spirit, rather than by our methodologies, numbers, strategies, or the cool and innovative things we are doing (15)."

In some respects, this shift is about adopting a more postmodern approach to our theology and ministry. That is to say that we would be more humble in our truth assertions and more aware of the mystery inherent in the Christian faith. The emergent church is an ancient/future oxymoron. It is about the emerging kingdom, and yet it is also a form of "vintage Christianity."

In today's world, emerging generations have no anchor or truth to hold only. So as they hear and experience Jesus as the truth and the anchor for the very first time, the hope for the future is incredibly optimistic. As the emerging church returns to a rawer and more vintage form of Christianity, we may see explosive growth much like the early church did. These new cultural waves of change may bring the greatest opportunity we have had in a long time to see many antichurch, anti-Christian, post-Christian seekers ... meet the eternal Jesus (28-29)."

The Challenge of Change

Many churches, just now getting their mind around the shift to seeker-sensitivity, find themselves a generation behind. That, however, might turn out to be an advantage for them, according to Brian Maclaren.

I would guess that churches that "missed" the traditional-to-contemporary transition (a la Willow Creek or Saddleback) might have a better chance of transitioning to postmodern ministry than ones that became contemporary. ... Why? Contemporary churches are happily modern, and their numbers (attendance, budget) are probably sufficient so that the pain of changing would be greater than the pain of not changing. ...Traditional churches are generally less happy, "successful," and secure in their modernity, so they may be more willing to change. Not only that, but the contemporary shift generally made churches more anti-septic - it purged them of ritual, liturgy, symbol, and so on. I actually think that these things will be assets for the postmodern church (McLaren 147).

Contemporary churches leaders tend to think of themselves as champions of change. Many of us have spent our lives reforming the traditional church. But now we may find that we are the ones in need of reformation. With the shoe on the other foot, will we be as comfortable?

There are two default responses people turn to when faced with change. The first is to embrace the change and the second is to resist it. The former call is to "Go for it!" The second is to "Hold it right there!" A biblical illustration of the situation is found in John 4 where we find the story of Jesus' meeting with the woman at the well. The woman was facing a question about worship form, an area of controversy and change even to this day. "Our fathers say we are supposed to worship on this mountain," she said. "But you say we must worship in the city." There was a change in the air and the woman was confused. But Jesus blessed her with his answer. "Those who worship God must worship in Spirit and in truth."

Jesus' call that we integrate Spirit and truth serves to describe a healthy Christian approach to change. The word for Spirit in the Scriptures is the same word we use for wind (pneuma). Wind shifts and swirls in ways beyond prediction. The Spirit doesn't change but the way of his work certainly does. The truth, however, is rooted. The wind blows, but the root of the gospel keeps things stable.

Several years ago Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote an influential book on change in business entitled Built to Last. The book analyzed every Fortune 500 company that had been in business for at least 100 years in order to discover the secrets of their success. The results of their research focused on two key concerns: "Preserve the Core" and "Stimulate Progress." In church life we are familiar with these dual emphases. Segments of the congregation champion truth as the core we must preserve. Other congregational segments see the Spirit as the one who stimulates progress. Of course the two are often in conflict. The Truthers see the Spiriters as introducing dangerous areas of compromise. The Spiriters see the Truthers as chaining the church to an unproductive past. Collins and Porras, however, seem to understand the integrative message of Jesus on this point. Their call is to abandon the tyranny of "or" and to give way to the genius of "and." We don't have to think about spirit or truth. Jesus argues for Spirit and truth. The answer is both to preserve the core (biblical truth) while at the same time looking to stimulate progress (as we respond to the Spirit).

The Shape of Things to Come

When Bill Hybels set out to begin the ministry that eventually became Willow Creek, he wanted to start an ACTS 2 church. The goal was to create a community that would fulfill the ancient paradigm of teaching, fellowship, community, and prayer. The same is true of leaders in the emerging church who call us back to a first century sense of church. In other words, the goals from one generation to the next are fixed in Scripture, even if the forms of expression can vary.

it may be that the most powerful forms of emerging church might not even come from North America. The house church movement in China, also patterned after ACTS 2 principles, is preparing to send 100,000 missionaries out from China into some of the most unevangelized areas of the world. Western discussions about the shape of church might prove academic as patterns become more globalized in years ahead (Hattaway 1).

Ultimately, our thinking about church must be missional. That is to say that we understand our existence in community as in service to our calling.

May our hearts beat fast when we think of how our churches can be known for their love, for the way they pray, for how they share Jesus, instead of being known merely for a style of preaching, music, artwork, or candles. The emerging church is about the Spirit of God producing missional kingdom-minded disciples of Jesus no matter what methodology we use. The emerging church is about love and faith in a post-Christian world (Kimball 17).

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