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Churchmorph Reflections: Post-Christendom Churches

Over the next 10 days (or so) some friends and I will be posting reviews and reflections on the 2008 book  

ChurchMorph: How Megatrends Are Reshaping Christian Communities

by Eddie Gibbs.

Yesterday Josh Kessler kicked off the series with this reflection on the crisis facing the church, and I’d encourage all of you to stop at Lower Cases and Capitals to read along from the start!

Today I’m looking at post-christendom churches in chapter two, and the first interlude, identifying the streams.

Faced with the challenges of postmodernism, a post-Christendom context, the information age, and churchgoers who have been discipled in consumerism, many in the Western church have seen a need for new ways of being and doing church which might bring new life to the faith.

In response came both an academic push towards “missional” and a large number of grassroots movements that are often lumped together as “emerging”.

These new forms of church attempt to look at their context through the lens of mission and community, so that their faith is communicated and lived in a way which can reach the de-churched and never churched. How they go about this task varies (I’d highly recommend picking up ChurchMorph and reading these sections for yourself), but they share a common passion to reshape the faith in a way which is fitting to the new context we find ourselves in.

Of course this diversity can be a strength and a liability.

At this point it’s a bit of a cliche to point out how hard it is to pin down what “emerging” means. But in book about emerging missional communities Gibbs is forced to give it a go, and the result (the interlude identifying the streams) is actually quite helpful.

One reason emerging is hard to define is because it attempts to fit a very diverse set of voices and movements under a single label, even though they often are very different from each other. So that the house church movement (which Gibbs points out was the precursor for emerging) ends up being equated with Emergent Village which is equated with the U.K.’s Fresh Expressions – and in the end this does justice to none of those movements.

Instead of setting down one definition, Gibbs presents a number of ways of looking at the people and movements which fall somewhere under the emerging or missional umbrella. The result is an empasis on something I wish people took more seriously, emerging and missional are not defined by a handful of big personalities.

You can identify with Shane Claiborne and the new monasticism and be perfectly agnostic about Brian McLaren. Likewise, your understanding of church can be deeply shaped by Jason Clark and at the same time have a soft spot for N.T. Wright or James K.A. Smith. In some sense all of those voices are part of the conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all agree.

It’s not cut and dry, and that’s a good thing. You can be emerging in how you do church, your approach to theology, in an ethos of mission, or a way of communicating your message. Some fit all of those, some fit one, but all are a part of this discussion.

But of course that’s not easy for many to accept, which makes the whole issue a bit precarious at times.

If you look through these two sections of ChurchMorph there are a host of ways in which I probably qualify as emerging and missional. I’m fine with that as far as it goes, outside of an aversion to labels in general, but it can get me in hot water.

So Tony Jones says something and, because he’s a big voice in Emergent, it’s assumed that if I fall under that larger label I must agree with him. I then either get pushed to defend it, or asked why I bother identifying with emerging if I disagree with the key personalities.

Emerging doesn’t work like that though, it’s not a system or a large organization. It’s not like signing up with the Gospel Coalition which has some very firm boundary markers.

Hopefully more thoughtful studies like Gibbs’ will help make that clear, and bring the conversation in a more productive direction. Because until we get past the obsession with defining a movement by one or two personalities, what the emerging missional church has to say will continue to be suspect or just ignored by much of the church, to the detriment of all of us who are trying to work out how to faithfully follow Jesus after christendom.