Thursday, June 22, 2006

Emerging Church and Critical Issues: Part 3

Following is the third installment from "Baptists and the Emerging Church: some critical issues," by Simeon Payne and Philip Johnson from Mosaic. Copyright Mosaic, Payne & Johnson.

Comparing EC and New Age
Now there are quite a few parallels between the dynamics of New Age and EC. Like New Age, the EC has (so far) produced an informal leaderless movement of individuals who positively celebrate postmodernity. The EC perceives itself as responding to postmodern culture with the gospel. However, it is also clear sociologically that the EC has arisen from both Protestantism and postmodernity. It manifests a strong spirit of individuality that is common to both. EC adherents mix-and-match things across all Christian traditions, just as New Agers freely combine practices from many religions. As New Agers reject modernity for its rationalism, so too the EC claims that the churches have elevated the intellect at the expense of a practical spirituality. They point to the heavy emphasis on text-based forms of communication in church, and contrast it with the way most people now communicate in audio-visual computerised formats. Just as New Agers wanted to reinvent a spiritual society, the EC should be commended for wanting to create new forms of church that are missional and spiritually relational.

The EC also reflects evangelicalism‚s free spirited attitude. Sociologically, Protestantism's strength has been the decentralised market spirit but it has been too uncritical in recognising how closely allied this is with the spirit of the times. In this era of late-capitalism, there is simultaneously a fragmentation of all social structures and very rapid globalisation of ideas. Seen in this light, the seemingly radical independence of the EC and its highly non-structured nature is really no surprise as it is taking Protestantism to its natural conclusion.

There is a "soft end" where some people call themselves EC because they identify with pop trends in clothes, music and gadgets. They seem to imagine that holding a service using candles, light liturgy and a Celtic labyrinth makes one EC. Others superficially mix and match Christian sources without reflecting on their original theological contexts. Again, just as New Agers romanticised the pre-Christian past, so we have observed some of those in the EC romanticising about the Celtic church and projecting back onto it an ideal kind of church they wish existed today. This "soft end" is very prone to faddishness and is very easy for critics to dismiss.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are some very creative and clever people who are serious about being missional in postmodernity. From the "hard core" EC networks, the church is being offered encouraging words about new urban experiments in missions. In light of their missional experiences, they are posing important questions about postmodernity, faith, and worship, which need to be openly and honestly discussed throughout evangelical churches. Even if EC did not exist, the issues they have raised would still have to be faced.

There is another dimension to the EC that demands our reflection. Alan Jamieson, a Baptist minister from New Zealand, has identified many "post-Church" groups in his country and ours. These are not groups of heretics, back-sliders or immature Christians. The opposite is the case. These groups consist of people who have grown through and beyond Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. He uses the psychological paradigm of Fowler's Stages of Faith, arguing that some Christians psychologically move beyond the rigid, inflexible and constraining format that many churches offer. Many of these people have found a home in the loose connection of the EC. It is critical that the reader understands that what distinguishes these groups from the established or mainline Churches is not theology or function, but their perspective on structure and sociological understanding of what their Church is about.

We wish to add one more element to Jamieson's work. With our own ministry to people within Alternative Spirituality, we have witnessed a number who have come to a saving relationship with Christ, but have floundered to find a church that can accept, understand or augment their journey. Although they are new to Christianity, their psychological faith zone is beyond that which the bulk of churches operate. These people have tended to gravitate towards the EC.

Tomorrow: Critical Crosscurrents - Part 4

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