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Are We An Emerging Church?
Are there shifts occurring in your church toward an Emerging Church profile? What is that profile, and what are the benefits and pitfalls of embracing it?


In the spring of 2001 I was coming to the end of my five year ministry as the senior pastor of a congregation in Surrey, British Columbia. We, as ministry leaders, had noticed some "shifts" that were occurring and that we were trying to understand in our congregation: A shift from responsiveness to propositional arguments to preference for narrative and story.

… these shifts represent important signals for us as church leaders.

• A shift in the attendance patterns of church-goers.
• A shift in the patterns of participation of families in church life.
• A shift in the priorities and values of our church ministry.
• We started using the language of 'missional' rather than the language of 'objectives or goals' (management) for ministry.
• A shift in the way we practiced worship and thought about worship.
• A return of the arts in the church: liturgical forms, sculpture, music styles, painting.
• A shift in concern from individual piety to communal spiritual formation.
• A shift in the advanced uses of technology for the expansion of our church ministry.

These shifts, I have come to learn, were not simply reflections of our specific congregation but were shifts and changes that were occurring in the wider Evangelical church. Over the past few years, I have come to reflect on some of these changes and to understand them in the context of what has now been coined, the "emerging church" movement. I can't say that we truly understood what these changes meant for our ministry nor could I say that they all advanced the mission of the church. Some of them are neutral issues and some can be the source of divisions and contradictory camps in a church.

I think it is important to say that, collectively, these shifts represent important signals for us as church leaders. If you are seeing some of these key shifts occurring in your ministry you might be asking: Are we an '"emerging church"? Do we want to be associated with this movement?

What are the pros and cons? What do we need to learn about this? I am hoping, in this brief article, to outline some of the benefits of embracing the elements of the "emerging church" movement that could serve to revitalize and strengthen your capacity to serve God in your unique context. I will also try to briefly represent how some of the common concerns about the Emerging Church movement can be addressed by ministry leaders and church boards.

Understanding the Emerging Church profile

If you were to search the Web for an understanding of the Emerging Church movement you will come across a web-based dialogical interpretation of it which describes the Church core characteristics and values of this movement:

… see faith as a journey rather than a destination …

Missional living: All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them.

Narrative theology: Narrative presentations of faith and the Bible are emphasized over propositional presentations.

Generous orthodoxy: Understanding of doctrine which attempts to move beyond the conservative versus liberal impasse in Christianity while honouring the beliefs and traditions of pre-modern, modern and post-modern Christian denominations.

Christ-centered: A commitment to emulate Jesus' way of living, in particular His loving of God, neighbours and those normally considered enemies.

Biblical interpretation: An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context.

Authenticity: Favouring the sharing of experiences and interactions that are personal and sincere such as testimonies over scripted interactions such as propositional, formulaic evangelistic tracts and teaching.

Conversation/dialogue: Creating a safe environment for those with different opinions to talk and listen with an attitude of grace when there are disagreements.

Emerging Church groups also typically emphasize the following elements:

• A flexible approach to and continual re-examination of theology which causes them to see faith as a journey rather than a destination, and to accept differences in beliefs and morals.
• A belief in creating communities built out of the creativity of those who are a part of each local body.
• A holistic view of the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from a higher degree of emphasis on social action, building relationships with the surrounding community, or Christian outreach.
• Creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films to liturgy, as well as more ancient customs, with a goal of making the church more appealing to post-modern people.
• Use of the internet as a dominant medium of communication through various blogs, websites and online videos.

Benefits of embracing shifts toward the Emerging Church

In the limited space I have, let me share four specific aspects of the Emerging Church movement that can be a healthy catalyst for your church or ministry.

Are we on task with the things that truly matter?

1. A re-examination of your faith can strengthen it, rather than dilute it.
Some people think that if everything is "up for grabs" and there are "no foundations" we will lose everything. In fact, the opposite is true. If we have an abiding commitment to the authority of Scripture and have ways and means of testing our faith, we can actually strengthen our capacity to understand the meaning of the Gospel in our context.

2. Tools do not define the content or character of our ministry.
Tools have always been that—means to an end. Our capacity to reach people with the love of Christ is directly proportionate to the way we use tools like the Internet, worship arts, or community groups in our ministry. Don't get hung up on whether the tools are spiritual; use the tools in a spiritual way.

3. Emphasis on spiritual formation in community.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Emerging Church movement, in my mind, is its call to return to a corporate vision of the spiritual life. This is embedded in Scripture and the recent revival of communitarian thought is, in my mind, only a return to something that is deeply connected to authentic spirituality. "Our Father . . . give us this day . . . ."

4. Missional churches are empowered to keep the "main thing as the main thing."
The importance of keeping the main thing in focus is crucial to every church ministry. It's not that easy to do, however. We need to constantly run our thinking through a grid: Are we on task with the things that truly matter? Is this God's mission? Have we been running on tradition or do we truly have a sense of what God is leading us to do and be?

Pitfalls of becoming an Emerging Church

Here are a couple of key correctives which I hope will be found helpful:

… "why not?"

1. Beware of movements.
Movements can easily become fads or copycat efforts to imitate the big church down the street. We need to move authentically towards the biblical vision that God is calling our unique ministry to accomplish. This requires the disciplines of corporate discernment and deeply embedded understandings of Scripture.

2. Beware of glamour.
We sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons. We need to be careful that we move our church forward with sensitivity to the leading of God the Holy Spirit. We need to check our motives. Don't start anything until you are clear about why you are doing it.

3. Beware of pride.
If you think you are becoming an "emerging church" where does that leave your sister church in the denomination or down the street? Are they "un-emerging," "sinking"? We need to be careful not to disparage any other ministry. Be charitable and supportive to other churches and careful to be encouraging to the Body of Christ.

A concluding word

Ministry is a most wonderful and decidedly difficult enterprise. God calls us to work with some very challenging situations and it has always been so. With respect to shifts, I would say "pay attention." With respect to strengthening your ministry to be missional, authentic, communal, deeply formed in the Spirit and exceptionally relational I say, "why not?" With respect to whether or not we are all doing the best things in the right ways for the correct reasons, I would say, "press on with sincere prayer and an eye toward the aims of God."

May God bless your ministry in every way.

Dr. Phil Zylla is principal of the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) of Trinity Western University where he has served since fall 2001. He teaches in the area of pastoral theology and is passionate about the ministry of seminary education. Prior to coming to ACTS, Dr. Zylla served as senior pastor for 17 years in three churches across Canada. He is married to Melodie and they have two daughters.

Originally published in The Pulse, Winter 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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