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A Few Feet From the Edge:
Navigating the Emerging Church Terrain


iStockphoto/Thinkstock

By Steven E. Schofstoll

Traveling Up a Mountainside

During the winter of my freshman year in high school I worked for the Department of Ecology. The job was similar to the ecology youth corps who pick up litter along the highways during the summer, but this involved going into the mountains to take litterbags to hunters. On Saturdays and Sundays, a handful of teenagers would pile into a four-wheel drive pickup with an adult supervisor and go into the surrounding mountains searching for hunters. When we found a camp, we would make sure the hunters had litterbags and remind them to pack out their trash when they were finished hunting.

Our supervisor drove us on logging roads deep in the forest in search of hunters. On one occasion, we drove along a road cut into a steep mountainside. As we climbed upward, the road got narrower and narrower. Soon it was not wide enough for our vehicle. Our supervisor seemed concerned when we realized we were not going to be able to turn around to head back down. He put the truck in reverse and slowly drove backward. I looked out the window straight down to the valley below. Though no one said anything, I am sure we all thought the same thing — If the wheels turned only slightly, we would slide off the road and would not stop until we reached the bottom of the valley over a thousand feet below.

I am still here, so the rest of the story worked out safely. But the feelings I had during that experience are similar to what I have felt the past few years as I have become more familiar with postmodernism and the emerging church movement. I have been on a journey up mountains where I have not been before and along roads to which I am not accustomed. The terrain is rugged and wild, and I have been doing my best to navigate it.

Where will this adventure lead me and how will it change my ministry? Will I continue upward and find myself drawing closer to God in the wilderness, or will I find the road narrowing to the point that I can no longer continue and will have to shift into reverse?

Looking Down the Road From Where I Have Come

When someone first exposed me to postmodernism, it was in a negative context. For years afterward, when I heard someone discuss this term, I took a somewhat polemical attitude. Postmodernism seems for many people to be the new primary threat on the horizon facing Christianity. Many Christians believe this view of truth and focus on tolerance (especially religious tolerance) are at odds with everything biblical. But as I began to investigate postmodernism further, I questioned my earlier assumptions. What exactly does postmodernism mean for Christianity in general and for my ministry in particular? And what can I learn from those who are doing church from a postmodern mindset?

I was born in 1964, which most timelines consider the last year of the baby boomer generation. When I was growing up, I had difficulty identifying with the postwar generation because I always connected it with the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, and cultural icons like The Beatles — things I have memories of but was too young to be involved with. But as the Generation X/baby busters came of age and were old enough to have labels and characteristics assigned to them, I felt I did not fit into that generation either.

As I have grown older, however, I have concluded that I have characteristics of both generations. My parents, who were the age of the baby boomers’ parents shaped my values. Both my mother and father were born in the late 1920s and grew up during The Great Depression. My dad served in World War II. Because they married late, my parents did not start a family until the early 1960s. I can also identify in several ways with Generation X (which on some timelines include 1964 as the beginning of this generation).

When I delved deeper into postmodern thinking, I surprisingly found myself agreeing with it more than I expected. It was this realization — along with two life-changing paradigm shifts — that caused me to seriously consider changes in my thinking. The first of these shifts was realizing that because of the changing world around me my ministry had to change if I was going to be an effective minister to the culture. Earl Creps, in his book Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures for Missional Leaders, says that our ministerial “playbook” needs to change if the church wants to be relevant in our society.1

While this first paradigm shift dealt with my ministry, the second was more personal. As my oldest daughter entered high school, I saw that she and her generation definitely had different perspectives on life. When I entered pastoral ministry, I was 30-years old. But when I reached 40 and my daughter was becoming an adult, I started to feel different about my position in life. My self-perception changed. I realized that if I wanted to reach my daughter’s millennial generation, I was going to have rethink how I do ministry (and maybe even how I view the church). Although it is a sobering statement, I agree that the “existing church must find its way into the emerging culture to retain its missiological credibility or perhaps even to survive.”2

The part of me that identifies with Gen Xers has often looked at how we “do” church in America, and I have been troubled by what I see. I can echo the words in the book Jim and Casper Go to Church when the antagonist Matt Casper asks: “Is this what Jesus had in mind for the church?”3

Casper’s question is not just in regard to methods, but also in regard to theology. I have always believed you need to boil things down to see what is left over at the bottom of the pot — and what is left will reveal the heart of the issue, or may I even say truth of the matter.

Part of the difficulty with my finding a way forward is the nature of the terrain. It is slippery and often clouded in a thick fog. Postmodernism is a beast that by nature is difficult to define. It is a moving target that resists being nailed down. It feels that if we can define or label it, we have conquered it. It is postmodernism’s infamous “incredulity toward metanarratives” that causes it to fear becoming another story, movement, or definable moment in history.

Maybe it is part of my baby boomer self that at least tries to hit this moving target. The best definition of postmodernism I have encountered is by Earl Creps: “At its heart, postmodernism is a philosophy of no.”4 I believe this definition captures the essence of postmodernism — a way of thinking that identifies itself more by what it is not, rather than by what it is. Creps says postmodernism is a “philosophical black hole.”5

The black hole exists because “nothing can be known because everything we think of as reality depends on our interpretation and expression of it.”6

I have become familiar with the arguments surrounding postmodernism — whether it is truly postmodern or whether it is just ultra- or hypermodernism. I have also read about the doubts some have regarding the sustainability of postmodernism and what will possibly come after it (what will a post-postmodernism look like?). However one feels about this question, I believe we all agree the world has significantly changed over the past 50 years. However you define it, this change is becoming very ubiquitous. Therefore, the church must take notice and decide how to address it.

For me personally and for the church I pastor in a rural eastern Washington community, addressing this cultural shift requires more than a change of our methods. It requires a reexamination of some of the fundamental assumptions about God and the church.

Looking Up the Road in the Direction I Am Going

Just as it is a challenge to define postmodernism, the emerging church also defies definition (and those within the movement seem to be happy this is the case). Although the book itself may be somewhat dated, Emerging Church: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures by Eddie Biggs and Ryan Bolger, published in 2005, seems to still be the book people most often refer to for a general summary of the movement (my apologies to some in the emerging culture who would prefer it to be called a “conversation”). Gibbs and Bolger describe emerging churches as “missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time.”7 In other words, they desire to be faithful to both the culture of the present and the Jesus of the past. To do this, “they dismantle church practices that are no longer culturally viable.”8 The result is a way of looking at the church that is very different from what has come out of modernity. Therefore, “at its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology.”9

But where does a person go from here? I believe emerging churches and those leading them are challenging the established church in a number of constructive ways. They are providing a much-needed corrective in some areas. Their proclivity for deconstructing modern church practices has great potential to clear the way for a genuine move of the Holy Spirit among individual churches. There is nothing harmful in evaluating how — or especially why — we do church in a certain way. Emerging church leaders believe much of our church culture is tied too closely to modernity; and, they feel strongly that, if we are going to reach our postmodern world with the gospel, we need to shed this association. While I am not as quick to condemn modernity in such a wholesale manner, nor am I willing to follow deconstruction to the point where it sometimes leads — to destruction, I feel this iconoclastic approach provides needed theological reflection on the church.

As I continue to investigate the theological basis for much of what emerging leaders are espousing, I find it refreshingly challenging. For example, their view of the kingdom of God and their focus on the life of Jesus leads them to state: “The gospel, as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and as understood by the Early Church, was always more than simply a message of personal salvation and, even more narrowly, the way to get to heaven when one dies.”10 What this willingness to examine current practices does for me is free me to have the confidence to take a broader view of how we can do church and rework the ministerial playbook.

One result of this evaluation of the church has been to move away from the performance-based, passive church service where the congregation is little more than religious consumers. Its emphasis on participation — whether that is “participating as producers” or “creating as created beings” — permeates every aspect of the church, including worship, service, leadership, etc.

Community life is another attribute of emerging churches that challenges existing churches. While many evangelical churches place an emphasis on small groups and the importance of discipleship and fellowship, emerging churches make community life part of their DNA. It is not something they do; it is something they are. This ties in closely with their desire for authenticity among emerging congregations. The anonymity provided for by large megachurches is unacceptable to emergents.

Another positive aspect of emerging churches is their enthusiasm to look to the past for spiritual practices. This has often led to the criticism that they incorporate non-Christian spirituality. I understand the concern, but it is my opinion that we evangelicals are too narrow in our concept of spirituality, and that we could benefit from a similar journey to the past to mine for meaningful practices that have blessed the historical church.

In addition to several other emerging church characteristics that draw my interest, the one I believe marks the emerging church more than all others is its missional approach to church. While baby boomer churches are becoming more missional, this often means only redirecting their ministry focus from inside the church to outside the church. Emerging churches go deeper by believing that they are taking part in the mission Dei by embodying the kingdom of God in their local culture. It is not the form of the church that matters, but living out the life of Jesus. “Clearly, mission is much more than simply a statement of purpose or a vision statement.”11

Those in the emerging-church movement dislike what they see as a dualist approach to missions — that churches are taking God to the world (therefore separating God and the world). They believe God, as a missionary God, is already working in the world. The church needs to get involved with what God is presently doing. This reminds me of the time I taught English in China with a Christian teaching organization. One American teacher commented, “We’re not bringing God to China; He’s already here. He’s just bringing us here to be involved with what He is doing.” That one statement forever changed my perspective on missions, and it hits at the heart of the emerging church’s view of missions.

This approach to missions leads to what may be the hallmark of the emerging church — its willingness to cross over into the secular realm as they minister the gospel. In fact, it views the secular realm as a creation of modernity that resulted from the Enlightenment’s relegating the sacred to the margins of society.

The willingness not only to engage culture but also embrace it stretches both my theology and ministry. And this is one of several areas where I am cautious about the emerging church.

While I am trying to lead my church toward becoming more missional, I believe a church can easily go too far in attempting to reach culture. At some point we must draw a line, or else the church will lose its distinctiveness. Gibbs and Bolger voice this concern when they write: “Emerging churches face a formidable task as they endeavor to distinguish between the parts of church life that are rooted in modern culture, to be discarded, and the parts that are gospel needing to be maintained. If the emerging church errs in regard to culture, the church dies, but if it gets the gospel wrong, it loses its identity” (italics mine).12

Other aspects of the movement that people often criticize (and which I also have concerns) include the acceptance of the postmodernism view of truth. Emerging churches, as they own the postmodern thought in which they swim, value experiencing reality over and above knowing reality. This leads to a lack of resolve concerning some doctrinal issues. Whether it is a vagueness on the doctrine of hell, or unorthodox positions on the Cross and salvation (which affects their view of evangelism), or the virtual acceptance of universalism, I believe their hesitancy with dogma, doctrine, or creedal Christianity, and the emphasis on orthopraxy over and above orthodoxy, can lead to some troubling doctrinal positions. Furthermore, their focus on the ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God, and narrative devalues Pauline theology (and systematic theology) to a secondary role — something which in my opinion leads to an unbalanced theology.

Another difficulty for me is the left-leaning politics of many in the emerging church. While those in the emerging culture rightfully warn against the evangelical association with the right in politics, they fall into the same trap by identifying themselves with the left. The church must be the conscience of the state; and, when we disregard this role under the guise of reaching our culture, we abandon our prophetic responsibilities. It is my opinion that we must at times be countercultural. This may not sit well with postmodern sensibilities, but it is part of the church’s calling. History has taught us this. Just look back to the church in Nazi Germany.

Finally, in all the reading I have done regarding the emerging church, I think it is a curious thing that they rarely discuss the issue of holiness. I hope in the near future there will be an emerging church leader who will articulate directly a view of holiness. The references I found were usually in connection to the evangelical view of holiness as separation from a decadent culture. How would they interpret Scriptures like James 4:4: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”? I believe emerging leaders would define holiness more in terms of engaging the world through God’s love rather than separating ourselves through fear of becoming “unclean” by our association with a sinful culture. This would be fine, but I still wonder why the issue of holiness does not come up more in the emerging church conversation.

Do I Want To Continue the Climb?

Looking up the road to where it could possibly lead, I plan to continue onward — but I move slowly and with caution. I feel the road can easily narrow to the degree that I will not be able to complete the journey. The concerns I have listed, as well as others, pose potential hazards. As I continue upward, I will travel a few feet from the edge of the road. Just as we found ourselves perilously close to disaster on that mountainside when I was in high school, the emerging church can lead down dangerous roads if it carries on in the direction some in the movement seem to be moving.

Furthermore, I believe the movement is currently showing signs of immaturity. One sign of this immaturity is its hypersensitivity to criticism. While we find much of its basis as a movement as a reaction to modernity and evangelicalism — therefore being critical at its core — emerging churches and their leaders seem quick to criticize their critics. It will be interesting to watch what happens as the movement ages. Will those who are in leadership tire of always trying to stay on the edge of cultural trends? Or will newer generations and leaders continually reshape the “conversation” to keep it current? Gibbs and Bolger must think so, as they state: “Regarding postmodernity, the Gen Xers are the first marines on the beach. Every generation hereafter will be postmodern.”13

Also, it is my opinion that the slogan emerging churches use to describe the spirituality of postmoderns — They like Jesus but not the church — is somewhat naïve.

It is true we find Jesus in the Gospels almost always directing His harshest comments toward those in the religious establishment, but I do not think those in the establishment were the only ones on the receiving end of His righteous anger. I believe, along with emergents, that “sinners” were drawn to Jesus because of the grace and love radiating from His being. However, we can ask how they would have responded if they did not heed His warning against continued disobedience. How would those who are interested in certain social issues of today respond to Jesus if He took a different stance? I have a feeling it wouldn’t be just the church they wouldn’t like.

In conclusion, when I evaluate the need in our small, rural community to adopt an emerging church approach, I return again to Earl Creps. He likens the postmodern turn to the Torino scale used by astronomers to gauge the likelihood of an asteroid hitting the earth’s surface.14 Some areas around the world where postmodernism is in full bloom, its effect registers a 10 on the Torino scale. In others parts of the world, where modernity continues to loom large and there seems to be little or no outward effect of postmodernism, the scale would register a zero.

Where does my community rate on the scale? At first glance, I might think it would rate very low because of the rural, small town, conservative setting. But I believe the impact is much greater. It is my opinion that while modernity and postmodernity are found in differing degrees wherever you go, much of American culture has bought into the postmodern ethos. It is now the cultural air we breathe. Because of this, my small town is not as far removed from what we would find in a place like Seattle.

I have concluded that rethinking how ministry is done in a small, farming community in eastern Washington is not beyond consideration. And actually, “A few trips through postmodernity might be just what we need.”15

I close with a prayer: “Lord, give our church wisdom and courage, and fill us with Your Holy Spirit and power as we continue our efforts to reach our local community and culture with both Your love and truth. Amen.”

Steven E. Schofstoll, Calvary Assembly of God, Lind, Washington

Notes

1. Earl Creps, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders (San Francisco: Jossy-Bass, 2006).

2. Tim Conder, “The Existing Church/Emerging Church Matrix,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, ed. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), 103.

3. Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation About Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians (BarnaBooks, 2007).

4. Creps, 30.

5. Ibid., 31.

6. Ibid., 30.

7. Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 28.

8. Ibid., 46.

9. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html; Internet; accessed 10 September 2012.

10. Gibbs and Bolger, 48.

11. Ibid., 52.

12. Ibid., 88.

13. Ibid., 33.

14. Creps, 34–37.

15. Ibid., 40.

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