Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to do church: Emergent movement and individualism

I've met up with someone (whose pseudonym is Kung) yesterday who joined a church which rides on the emergent wave. To Kung, one of the main attractions of that emergent church was that it welcomed Christians who were hurt by their own churches. It was like an oasis for those who are wounded either by other Christians or church leaders.

After some years being there, Kung got disillusioned by the emergent people, especially in the way they keep criticizing and mocking how churches have worked and still working in an 'irrelevant' and impasse way.

Besides that, Kung couldn't understand how could the emergent people who were the most vocal in mocking churches were also those who seldom attend Sunday service in that emergent church. Kung's friends would appear to have lunch and hang out with their churchmates after the service. 

On top of that, it was rare to have sermons preached on the importance of proclaiming the gospel through mission work and the need to live through the sanctifying process. Sermons were mostly about social justice with a slant towards inclusivism.

Whatever one may say about the emergent movement, one thing is clear in this case: there is a pervasive individualism which leads its followers to lose sight of the importance of ecclesial gathering for worship and for doing church. 

Such myopia resembles "the typical evangelical understanding of the church as the sum-total of individual Christians rather than as a single, corporate entity that is more than the sum-total of individuals." (Simon Chan, Pentecostal Ecclesiology: An Essay on the Development of Doctrine [UK: Deo, 2011], p.46. Emphasis original.) 

It is therefore not an overstatement that one of the characteristics shared among most of the leaders of the emergent movement is that they were from traditional evangelical churches. That movement was the product of their rebellion against their own evangelical tradition. (D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [USA: Zondervan, 2005], p. 36.) 

If the sixteenth century Reformation has democratized how to do church, the emergent movement is hyper-democratizing it so much so that church becomes the individual.

Hence we have individual Christians within the emergent movement who think that they can do whatever they think right and practice whatever spirituality they deem interesting regardless of what the Church tradition nor the wider gathering ecclesial community holds as true.

My friend Kung has since bid goodbye to that emergent church and settled in one of the mainline denominational churches.

Scot McKnight is one of the most cautious and sympathetic conversational partners with Brian McLaren, the guru of the emergent movement. In a recent post, McKnight's disappointment with McLaren's project (which he sees as nothing but non-constructive criticism of churches) has again appeared:
I remember asking Brian McLaren, after he had written Generous Orthodoxy and then Everything Must Change, “What is your ecclesiology now?” and he told me then that he was working on it. I’ve not seen any book of his that seeks to answer that question.
The previous appearance of McKnight's discontentment with McLaren's project was in his review of A New Kind of Christianity two year ago:
"As a friend and a chronicler for two decades, I have watched Brian's work. [...] Brian has poked evangelicals in the eyes and chest by fixating on sensitive spots that bedevil them [...].

But I want to turn the following comment from McLaren back on him: "Sociologists sometimes say that groups can exist without a god, but no group can exist without a devil." Brian's devil is Western evangelicalism, which he caricatures often, and his poking is relentless enough to make me say that he needs to write a book that simply states in positive terms what he thinks without using evangelicalism as his foil. [...]

Brian is not only poking evangelicals, he is also calling everything about Christian orthodoxy—from the ecumenical creeds through the Reformation and up to present-day evangelicalism—into question. [...] Unfortunately, this book lacks the "generosity" of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself."
It is not hard to sense that McKnight is saying something like, "McLaren is just out to criticise everyone else except himself; To McLaren, everbody's Christian faith is not generous except McLaren's own."

And recently, McLaren led a commitment ceremony for his son's gay-marriage. How far more individualistic can such spirituality be?

Therefore what I think the emergent and the post-emergent Christians need is to re-look back into the basic of ecclesiology:
...worship is what distinguishes the church as the church. [...] The worship of the church is, properly speaking, the action of the triune God in the church. [...] That's why assembling together is so vital to the life of the church: it is what constitutes the qahal. So important it is that in an early Christian document, the Didascalia (third century), we are warned that absence from the assembly "cause[s] the body of Christ to be short of a member."
(Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community [USA: IVP Academic, 2006], p.42, 48. Emphasis original.)
The real work of building up the church is not in the constant mocking of it. Rather, it is in the hard work of breaking down individualism by retrieving the importance of ecclesial gathering for worship and for doing church.

If Rowan Williams is right that what the church really is is another way of saying what humanity really is when it is touched by God through Christ (Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ In One Another [USA: New Seeds Books, 2005], p.12), then to do church is to try to be human. For this reason, individualism that is embedded within some of the emergent groups cannot build the church because of its distorted view of humanity.


Jason said...

Thanks for sharing this. Perhaps someday we can drop by this emergent church in sg to check it out.

I'm not so sure if every emergent church is about individualism and I wonder if there is any good emergent church. Good in the sense that it is a church and does what a church does. Perhaps a kind of "reformed" emergent church?

I'll agree that we will see more individualism and rebellion(or mistrust) against evangelical tradition and institution. Perhaps a direct or by-product of post-modernism but it is really an issue churches must acknowledge. And learn how to educate(and disciple) their folks in this era.

Hope that Kung has found a good home. And that you'll be able to teach, and help those who have been hurt in churches like him/her. God bless.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Jason,

Which local emergent church do you have in mind? Can email to me. We arrange further.

True, not every emergent church is about individualism in the sense of they consciously insist on pursuing independence in theology and practice for its own sake. Individualism that I meant was in the sense of their constant mocking of the existing churches to the extent that when any comparison placed between them, it is always the individualistic characteristics (be it concern, thoughts, or praxis) take priority over the churches.

This sort of individualistic rebellion is not only directed against the evangelical tradition alone, but towards all traditions. Just that this movement is initiated by those originated from evangelical tradition, hence this tradition is the immediate object to rebel against.

May God help both you and I in our respective work to do church that glorify God and loving others. :)

Martin Yee said...

Sze Zeng,

Great post. It is an eye opener for me.



Jason said...

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for clarifying. The troubling thing is that such mocking of existing churches build up a sense of elitism in the mocker without himself knowing it.

Amen to your last sentence. God bless :)

A friend of Christ said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

What a fascinating article. Particularly

"Whatever one may say about the emergent movement, one thing is clear in this case: there is a pervasive individualism which leads its followers to lose sight of the importance of ecclesial gathering for worship and for doing church."

Would appreciate if you expand why this it was so clear that this movement leads to pervasive individualism.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi A friend of Christ,

I am unable to expand on how the emergent movement leads to pervasive individualism. What I wrote is an observation of what is already there in the movement, not what the movement can lead to.

Your insight that it can lead to pervasive individualism is worthwhile pursuing. Thanks for this!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for reading!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Jason,

"The troubling thing is that such mocking of existing churches build up a sense of elitism in the mocker without himself knowing it."

Wow! Sharp observation there.

A friend of Christ said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

It is a very strong critique of the emergent movement for having pervasive individualism!

Would be interested to understand why you have come to such a position.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi A friend of Christ,

Yes, my critique of the emergent movement is strong. Yet it is pale in comparison with some of the emergent groups' critique at the evangelical tradition in general and their own churches.

How I have come to this position was gradual. Through being in conversation with some of those who identified themselves with the emergent movement as well through observing the polemics they used against what they are reacting to. This post has captured the basic journey that I've arrived.

As implied in the post, emergent movement seems to me is the logical conclusion of the sixteenth century Reformation. When one pushes to its logical conclusion, one loses the tension and balance.

The magisterial Reformers five hundreds years ago have tried very hard to keep the balance between individualism and communitarianism (I'm risking being anachronistic to use these categories, yet think it's appropriate to make the point). They wanted to liberate Christians from excessive clericalism, and they wanted to do that while maintaining order in both the society and the existing Christian communities. Hence there was a love-hate relationship between the states and the churches at that time.

While the emergent tends to portray themselves as bringing back the balance to the Protestant-evangelical movement, yet some of the things they do and say are exaggerated to the extend that the equilibrium is lost.

A friend of Christ said...

I doubt there would be any emergent church in Singapore!

Jason said...

Hi A friend of Christ,
There might not be now. But I won't be surprised that an emergent church will pop up somewhere in the future. Perhaps 10-20 years ago, the Christian community in sg would not have expected a LGBT church. But now we have one in sg - probably partly(or mostly) the result of the Christian communities'(churches) unwillingness to address the issue and inability to educate church folks on how to love them biblically. Sometimes, I feel like sg is 10 years behind the states (in the Christian circle). So perhaps in 10 years time, we will not only see emergent churches, but pastors who will tell you they don't believe in God anymore.( Just a gut feel.