America has long been seen as the premier Christian nation (if such a thing is possible). Since its foundation, there has been an amazing amount of Christian language and influence embroidered in American public life. And the thing that evangelicals from the rest of the world have found exciting, like me, is that American Christianity has such a large and active gospel-minded, Bible-believing streak.
A recent post on Out of Ur reflects on the demise of American Christianity, especially American evangelicalism. Yet the uncomfortable trends of the ARIS report are entirely unsurprising. Things started ‘trending’ that way decades ago in American Christian lives. When our lives become so indistinct from the world around us, at some point our thinking catches up and we start shedding the remaining religious labels and trappings. Robert Gundry provides a wrap-up of it in his Paleofundamentalist Manifesto. Books with titles like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind could be the latest on-the-pulse analyses of the church — but I saw them first on my parents’ bookshelves. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was written in 1977 — almost two generations ago — yet it appears to have done little for the transformation of Christian living, despite being in Christianity Today’s ‘influential’ lists.
Shake ‘n’ Bake
As we’re seeing in these trends, American evangelicalism has gone rotten, and has been going that way for a while. Increasingly, American evangelicalism is the mainline church, especially as traditionally mainline churches die. It is against this background that the term ‘postevangelical’ arises. Against this background, being postevangelical sounds hysterically attractive. Maybe the emerging church is the big Shake ‘n’ Bake pancake (or pork?!) for mainline, nominal, hypocritical Christianity.
The emerging church has copped a lot of flack, haven’t they? But I’ve been thinking… And do bear in mind that I’m referring to American Christianity and American conversations, and I’m just going on my impressions. In other words, I probably don’t have a clue, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of some inspiration.
Experimentation is good
The emerging church isn’t just tinkering with service styles. They’re re-examining the entire scope of Christian life, thought and witness. Sure, that’s scary. Yet in one sense, this is exactly what we need. American evangelicalism has shown that having an orthodox creed is not enough. There are huge swathes of people in orthodox churches who, by any measurable sense, are not following the Christ. Clearly, we can’t measure the health of the church by professions of faith. We’re still recovering from the past generations of normative churchgoing, and throughout the western world, Christian faith is still often distinguished by opting out rather than opting in. In this situation, maybe getting ‘Christians’ to rethink every last ounce of their ‘faith’ will do some good.
Overemphasis is okay
The problems in American evangelicalism stem from things it has emphasised or permitted: individualised salvation, privatised faith, prosperous living, to name a few. To provide a corrective, other things need to be emphasised: corporate belonging, accountability, generous living. We shouldn’t be surprised if the emerging church is hammering at or even exaggerating certain issues — don’t we need correctives in those areas? And surely, the solution is not to heighten what we’ve already been doing. (Here, Christ Church Hawthorn readers will point and say “Ayyyyyy!”.) Now, in itself, this overemphasis is not good, and it would be disastrous if the church was transformed only to adopt another set of equally narrow, deficient concerns. Yet it’s by overstating the argument, as it were, that change can be provoked and promoted in the wider church.
Mistakes are to be expected
As the emerging church tries out various experiments and emphases, they will get some things wrong. (Surprise!) It’s very easy to be critical of them. Logs and specks, people, logs and specks. American evangelicalism has not just made mistakes — it has been fading under a series of endemic failures over the course of years.
So give them some slack
Maybe the emerging church is the first movement to really challenge the hypocrisy and fakery in the church that we’ve spent so many years talking about. If that’s so, I happen to think that’s great. I would think it’s about time. I would wonder why it’s been so long coming. If there are so many critics, I would wonder why no-one else started something. And I really don’t care a bit about preserving orthodoxy if orthodoxy has got such an utterly contemptible, embarrassing record. Maybe the emerging church is a bunch of heretics trying to corrupt the orthodox — or maybe it’s a bunch of people trying to show the orthodox that their orthodoxy doesn’t mean anything anymore. If you want to apply your blowtorch, there’s worse than the emerging church.
So join them
The influence of the emerging church remains to be seen. Anyway, criticising or countering it may not make much difference. But have you noticed that the emerging church is just one small corner of the revitalising conversations that are happening between Christians? I think the resurgence has already been building. Let’s dial down criticism and become agents of change as well. Unless Christian churches are in fact Christian, they will wither and die in our lifetime — and if we’re not speeding that process, let’s dedicate ourselves to undoing and reversing it! Let’s renew ourselves in a radical commitment to ardent godliness, piercing proclamation and devoted outreach! Let’s get serious about repopulating our churches with living, breathing, life-bringing followers of the Christ!
The church in the west is decrepit. It’s a neglected, withering shell, still barely propped up on ancient stilts of imperialism. Europe, bright birthplace of the Reformation, has become the new Deep Dark Africa. I’m reminded that the Lion of Judah will always fight for his people but he will just as often tear down those who despise him. It happened to Israel thousands of years ago and it’s happening in our time: the western church is being cut down to a remnant. It’s a good thing that God’s got an ancient habit of bringing fresh sprouts from cut stumps. That remnant will re-emerge, faithful.
You may have noticed that I haven’t made a call on the emerging church — this post has almost nothing to do with that. The rethinking of things by the emerging church is just a slice of a conversation already growing in the church. Amidst the decline of western churches, there is certainly much to be done and much striving being done, yet I’m finding there are ready sources of encouragement in the turmoil (like this response). God continues his work of drawing out repentance and bringing redemption. That’s change that excites me and a future that leaves me full of hope!
Categories: Written by Arthur
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.
Well structed post Arthur!
I’m absolutely all for the emerging church – mistakes and all. Over the last few years I’ve just been hearing more and more about perichoresis and a “relationship” grounded faith, NOT a “ritualistic and rule” grounded faith and definitely leads me to think that the emerging church is the way to go. Because church is the people… not the building to be used on a sunday morning :P
There are a lot of people reacting against church structures these days and that seems to be a big part of what emerging and perichoresis people are on about. Of course institutions have got big issues and I spend a lot of head space trying to figure it out! But those structures aren’t intrinsically bad — besides, they’re woven right into ‘authentic’ New Testament Christianity with the Jerusalem Council and apostolic oversight.
I think it’s important not to swallow the emerging church whole — they have their own problems along with their ‘solutions’ that might seem so attractive. In a shapeless church, I can see faith becoming even more privatised and unaccountable.
The thing I was getting at in the post is that a whole range of Christians everywhere are already grappling with the problems you’ve raised, often in more constructive and less exaggerated ways. For example, I think of my church-planting friends in Melbourne, the Driscoll / Acts 29 posse (who himself is ex-emerging), and the ‘Total Church’ people.
I think something else we’re touching on here is how church practice lines up with ‘the theory’. I can’t think of many Christians today who *actually believe in* ritualism and Sunday mornings, but there are still plenty of ways in which churches haven’t made those changes yet. So while I don’t think there’s a need to redefine everything, I do think there’s work to be done in ensuring our theology actually shapes our Christian communities.
Keen to hear more of your thoughts…