Saturday, September 03, 2005

Thoughts on the Emergent Church

(excerpts from a report on Jim Wilson's book Future Church)

Wilson’s general statements are overall quite correct. He talks about the need to bring back the arts and provide room for God’s movement not only in services but in running a church. He says we must be unafraid to be blatant Jesus freaks while at the same time never faking our faith. He emphasizes that the Future Church will not be homogenous in age, race, or socio-economic status – and that means not just members, but leadership. He identifies the biggest need of people in our technological age: connection with others. The Church will only succeed if it makes relationships central to everything it does. This will affect the style of leadership (peer as opposed to hierarchical), preaching (narrative instead of expository or topical), fellowship (small groups instead of cavernous halls), and evangelism (inviting friends instead of sending flyers or knocking on doors). I agree with all of these notions and do believe that churches which implement them will succeed.

However, when Wilson gets deeper into some of these concepts or illustrates them using particular churches, I feel that his arguments do not hold sufficient weight. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Get Spiritual” he frequently uses the word “spiritual” to describe ambiance: darkness and candles and chairs in a circle. Last I knew, “spiritual” wasn’t something you could call into being by setting up your auditorium a certain way. Also, he talks a great game about being authentic and connecting with people for who they really are, but he still seems to define success by numbers and conversions – neither of which should really be the point. He talks about church’s mission statements, vision statements, charismatic pastors, PowerPoint, and praise bands as if these are somehow the key to finding real church.

What I think is happening is that Wilson cannot help but fall into the modernist trap of proposing “systems” for others to follow. His book has to propose something practical for other people to do, otherwise, why will they buy it? And so, despite his efforts in the conclusion to insist that there’s no formula to follow, throughout the book he is obviously praising certain methodologies which have worked for others. I fear that a modernist church would pick up this book and just start trying to implement what they find inside, without paying attention to their own church’s needs and gifts. He quotes Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill, Seattle) saying, “Our temptation is always to take an approach and turn that into a system, and I think that’s the death of what the Spirit of God is trying to do.” (p. 223) Let us hope that church leaders read that far into the book, and take that statement to heart.

There is one vital element to the success of the church in America, which has been a theme not only in this book but all the books I’ve read this summer, and was emphasized most strongly by Karen Ward (Church of the Apostles, Seattle) at the Brehm Conference. That element is churches relating to their local context. In the end, the key to our churches remaining relevant and important to our culture is their ability to minister to their local community. This means we don’t focus on writing books or curricula for a national audience; we don’t televise our services coast-to-coast; we don’t try to grow to the point where we’re sapping other parishes of members. There are enough Christians in America, and enough committed leaders (if the full seminaries are any indication), that everyone can do this and not leave anyone out. In his conclusion, Wilson tells a nice story about feeling his own call to the mission field, and his wife confirming the same. But when they asked God where he’d like to send them, God said, “Gee, I wish you’d be willing to be missionaries in your own town!” As Wilson puts it, “Ouch!” So what did he do? He began learning Spanish so he could preach and relate to the growing Hispanic community in his town.

That is the sort of missions work that Americans are called to in this age. A mission with an impact all the way down the street.

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