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An Emerging Practical Ecclesiology: Personal Thoughts

The reader of my previous posts knows that I greatly appreciate the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). ECM has challenged me in every aspect of my Christian walk and ministry, and for that I’m thankful. But today I’m going to offer two major critiques of ECM’s practical ecclesiology.

Retailing to a Postmodern Culture?

Spencer Burke describes the modern church, particularly the seeker-sensitive movement, as a “retailer.” He believes this retail attitude impacts the church’s practical ecclesiology, namely with the attitude that “I believe we need to make the gospel message more attractive for today’s culture.” However, when ECM’s practical ecclesiology is analyzed, a similar “retailer” attitude is often evident, but to a postmodern rather than to a modern culture. When Kimball compares the modern market-driven ecclesiology to ECM’s mission-driven ecclesiology, he believes younger generations do not connect with modern outreach approaches that emphasize fun and glitz. He states, “the changes in our culture are influencing emerging generations to crave a raw and vintage approach to Christianity and church.” Throughout their survey, Gibbs and Bolger quote ECM leaders who believe that these characteristics are unique to the movement. For example, one leader states his church “looks to communicate the gospel in language that both they and their hearers understand in the context of a world they both share.” Another church leader speaks of playing “secular” music so that “church resembles the rest of their lives.” Therefore, contemporary seeker-sensitive methodology goes against what connects with them most deeply.” Kimball’s books, The Emerging Church, Emerging Worship and They Like Jesus but Not the Church, are full of anecdotes of how modern evangelical methods do not connect with postmoderns but ECM methods do. But it is important to ask, isn’t ECM’s practical ecclesiology simply making the gospel message more attractive for today’s postmodern culture? Therefore, at best, both the seeker-sensitive movement and ECM desire to effectively minister to their respective cultures. At worst, both the seeker-sensitive movement and ECM are retailers to their cultures, sacrificing the essence of the gospel so that it can be sold.

The Danger of Imitation

A significant danger ECM faces is, ironically, the danger of imitation. A major concern of ECM is that modern churches, derived from a mindset of consumerism, simply took the latest church success story or “how-to” and attempted to apply it to their own context. McLaren acknowledges that megachurch leaders like Hybels were visionaries within the modern era, but he laments when other churches imitated their style without their vision because they “violate the very process that made them successful.” Furthermore, ECM believes imitation does not work in a postmodern culture because of the desire for authenticity and the rapid rate of cultural change. For this reason, leaders like Jones and Kimball often begin with not-so-subtle disclaimers: “Sorry. No models inside” or “there is not single model for the emerging church.” However, many of these same books then proceed to outline how their church is structured in great detail. Kimball, for example, devotes over half of The Emerging Church to detailing how he constructed a church for postmoderns, complete with diagrams of a worship gathering and detailed teaching topics. If this is not enough, a year later he published Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations, a 230 page book that includes chapters such as “What Is an Emerging Worship Service Gathering” and “First Steps Toward Starting a New Worship Gathering” to “Planning and Creating Multisensory Worship Gatherings” and “Creating Life-Stage Worship Gatherings.” When this is combined with preaching books such as Doug Pagitt’s Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith, evangelism books such as Brian McLaren’s More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix, spiritual practice books such as Tony Jones’s The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life and Divine Intervention: Encountering God through the Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina, and leadership books such as Brian McLaren’s The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix which contains twelve strategies for church leaders, it is difficult to imagine that churches won’t imitate ECM’s methods. Although this danger is admitted by some, the vast amount of literature coming from ECM often reads similar to the “how-to” manuals of the modern era, thus encouraging others to imitate their methodologies.

So when it comes to practical ecclesiology, has ECM really overcome the consumerist mentality of the modern church that it so passionately reacts against?

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  1. November 25, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    You were saying:
    …not-so-subtle disclaimers: “Sorry. No models inside” or “there is not single model for the emerging church.” However, many of these same books then proceed to outline how their church is structured in great detail. — end quote.

    That is a very keen observation, Brian. Thank you!

  2. Jon Lowe
    December 28, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Hey Bri,
    Just wanted to let you know that I read your entries regarding the EMC and I really appreciated your perspective and the informitive way that you presented the material.

  3. Tom
    January 24, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    The above discussion reminds me of the “Christianity Lite” that has popularized much of the Wester World of late. It seems to say: “you don’t need to understan anything other than the fact that Jesus loves you, he died for your soul and spirtit to have everlasting communion with your God, here on Earth and in the Hereafter” and”don’t concern yourself with all those other elements of the faith so much, like helping others to find Christ, mission work, prayer life, etc, etc.” It’s like a drive-thru restaurant mentality. A quick transaction, or consumerisim at it’s base level- best explains and describes this ECM thing. IMHO

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