The writer of Ecclesiastes, observing the way of the world, states that…
there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is vanity.
It might be an accusation levelled at the Fresh Expressions initiative and other associated movements which have emerged over the past twenty years or so. Martyn Percy describes many of the attempts at new forms of church as ‘old tricks for new dogs’
While this might be justified in some cases, it is certainly not true of the myriad communities springing up across the United Kingdom, both within larger denominations and outside them. Their aim is to worship God, follow Jesus faithfully, and carry out mission appropriate to their current context. Whether or not what they do is ‘new’ is, to them, rather irrelevant.
In their book Emerging Churches: creating christian community in postmodern cultures (2006, pp. 44-45), Gibbs and Bolger list nine defining features of these new communities, the first three of which are outworked in the second six. Over a decade later, they still remain broadly true or have developed even further:
- Identifying with the life of Jesus. This might contrast with, or be additional to, self-identifying as a member of a particular church or denomination.
- Transforming the secular realm. Reflective of a theology which sees the work of God in all things is a desire to see an end to the distinction between the sacred and profane in all aspects of culture.
- Living highly communal lives. Emerging church participants tend to understand worship as a way of life rather than once-a-week service.
- Welcoming the stranger. This is offered without any anticipation that any new person will be expected to sign up to a doctrinal creed.
- Serving with generosity. Acts of kindness are viewed as foretastes of the Kingdom of God.
- Participating as producers. All members of the community take corporate responsibility for worship, mission and ministry.
- Creating as created beings. Revelling in creative acts of worship, generosity and community service, there is a strong sense among members that they are participating in God’s mission to the world.
- Leading as a body. Many emerging churches aim to have a flat structure and full equality among participants.
- Taking part in spiritual activities. Often ancient and contemporary spiritualities from a variety of different church traditions are adapted for corporate and personal use.
This is not to say that churches with a more traditional inherited structure do not have any or all of these features. For example, in my denomination, the United Reformed Church, the Walking the Way initiative encourages many of these features, especially the first. It is simply that they tend to be more explicitly acknowledged and held in emerging church communities.
A principle undergirding these features is the concept Missio Dei. This is the idea that all activity carried out, in the name of God, is part of God’s overarching plan to redeem the world, and that church is but one means of achieving God’s end.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes it as ‘working out what God is doing in the world and joining in’. This has implications for how church communities understand and structure themselves. Churches emerging in this tradition tend to focus much of their activity outwards, understanding their mission as God’s mission, and their service to the world as a foreshadowing of the redemption of all creation.
While this all sounds very exciting, such an idealistic way of envisaging church does have some practical weaknesses:
- Emerging church communities often require financial support from more established churches. Although models of church formed in this way do not necessarily require salaried leadership longterm, many leaders are trained and funded, at least in part, by the denominations from which they hale. Making new Christians and equipping them to become leaders themselves takes time, making new forms of church emerging from traditional denominations reliant on them, both for funding and practical support, for up to fifteen years.
- Because many of these new communities stand either on the fringes of, or outside, the traditional church, there can be a lack of accountability among the leadership. No-one wants to admit it, but there is a danger that new communities shaped by a charismatic leader are at a risk of being formed in the image of that leader rather than God’s. More established denominations have the expertise to offer practical and spiritual support to new leaders, and to provide safeguarding, accounting, property and legal advice, essential in undergirding new ecclesial communities as they grow and develop.
- A desire for mutuality in all aspects of church life can sometimes result in lack of proper leadership or direction. Flat structures cannot always be maintained, particularly where the transient nature of a community might mean a regular change in membership. Being part of a more established denomination can enable continuity, even though the membership of a new church community might fluctuate and change.
This need for continuity signifies what is, for me, one of the greatest potential weakness of emerging churches: failing to understand ourselves as carriers of a tradition into which we enter and become a part as followers of Christ. Being members of the church is not just about a fondness for old stories or relics; it is recognising that we are part of a story, going back to the beginning of time; one that will continue until the world as we know it is no more. As people of God, not only do we each have a role in that story, but we are an integral part of it: we make the story.
The technical term for this principle of corporate shared memory is ‘anamnesis’, a term discussed John Bradbury in his book Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Renewal and Reform (2013, pp.171-187). Bradbury says that “most major moments of reformation are not seeking to break with the past, but rather to rediscover the past in such a way as the present can be reformed to better embody the tradition.” The question the church is currently asking, not only from within the Reformed Tradition, but across the denominations, is ‘how best can we do it?’
To be faithful to God I believe that the church needs both the anamnesis perpetuated by traditional churches and Missio Dei so passionately outworked in emerging churches. The two are related – it might even be said that they overlap.
Churches which have been around for generations, that are tired and out of ideas, might do well to adopt some of the features highlighted by Gibbs and Bolger in an attempt to revive themselves. In turn churches experimenting with new forms would be wise to pay attention to their forebears. Not only do they rely on them, both in practical and fiscal terms, but they are part of a tradition reflecting a story that has existed since the beginning – and will continue until the end of time.
Janet Sutton Webb, May 2018
For more on emerging churches see:
- Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, 2006, Emerging Churches: creating christian community in postmodern cultures (London, SPCK)
For more on anamnesis see:
- John P. Bradbury, 2013, Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Renewal and Reform (Edinburgh, T&T Clark), especially pp.175-187