Thursday, May 12, 2005

Criticisms of alt/emerging church

Andrew Jones’ blog is currently carrying a fascinating dialogue between himself and Michael Horton, who has offered some friendly criticism of emerging churches from a reformed perspective. Although most of the discussion is of particular relevant to the situation in the US, some of the criticisms sound strangely familiar.

- Sloppy philosophy: inadequate appreciation of and criticism of postmodern thought
- Demographically separated: ie. not for older people, therefore inadequately reflecting the diversity of the body of Christ (at least in age-range)
- Anti-seminary – perhaps more accurately, anti-academic theology
- Vague and avoids certainty – this seems more a comment on tentative spirituality than on intellectual approach

I found myself resonating with some of these friendly criticisms, even though I have been involved in emergent-type groups since 1993. The manifestation of some of these potential weakness in British contexts indicates a need to take them seriously.

Philosophy – the high-water-mark of postmodern philosophy has been passed, and it’s difficult to see what the abiding value of its critique really is. Certainly, there was far too much being published about postmodern thought in the 1990s. These days, the philosophy section of academic bookshops looks quite different. Perhaps given that the dust is being allowed to settle in philosophical thinking, the Church needs to realise that the postmodern critique of modernity isn’t the last or latest word (indeed, Lyotard’s seminal The condition of postmodernity is over 25 years old now.)

Demographically separated – from my experience, I think this is one of the most limiting factors on the authenticity and long-term viability of alt/emerging groups. The story goes like this: the group sets up with people mostly in their 20s. They have lots of time and energy and much creativity ensues. Then some move away. Others decide that the disenchantment which led them out of ‘ordinary church’ is deeper than that and they need to leave church altogether. Others have kids (or a more intensive job) and find it difficult to raise them in the alt/emerging setting. What’s missing in all of this? - age diversity and range of life-experience. To what extent are we working out a delayed adolescence in the face of other churches where leadership and vision is being steered by an older generation?

Anti-seminary – I think the UK groups tend to be less dismissive of theology than perhaps our American counterparts. Indeed, there seems to be a higher incidence of theological (over-?) qualification within alt/emerging groups in UK than other, more ‘normal’, church forms. Whether this is a good thing or not, I am less sure of. However, I have enjoyed a more thorough experience of theological exploration within alt/emerging churches than in all other types of Church to which I have belonged.

Vague, and avoids certainty – perhaps we ought to plead guilty m’lud. The kind of certainty which drives a lot of growing, mainly boomer-type churches locates the certainty ‘outside’ the experience of the person of faith, in some kind of shared fiduciary deposit box. This does not cohere well with most contemporary understandings of authentic existence, so it is not surprising that alt/emerging is reacting against this: many big-church-dropouts are to be found within our number. It doesn’t really cohere with the gospel call to follow Jesus, focussed as it is more on conceptuality than exploration and the challenge to obey him relationally. I reckon that one of the best reasons to take Jesus seriously is because life is complicated and confusing, incapable of being addressed by a prior set of answers. I’d rather follow him than trust to some prior-digested form of ‘certainty’, which someone else has put together for me. This exploratory approach does not rule out certainty, but perhaps ‘conviction’ would be a better word for it, which is nurtured through doing, rather than reading-up in advance of living. Those who accuse alt/emerging groups of vagueness have perhaps missed the point about a dynamic action-listening-reflection which is located within the ‘liturgical’ heartbeat of alt/emerging Christianity. To have one’s ears open to hearing God in the midst of a life lived ‘raw’ is inevitably going to involve asking questions all the time, as well as learning to live faithfully with some of the answers.


At 5/19/2005 11:27 AM, Anonymous Julie said...

Demographically separate? Well, longing for worship which is creative, open-ended, participatory and in touch with our culture is not something that stops when you hit 30!
I'm nearly 55 and most of the people in my church who are keen on "alternative" forms of worship are well over 40. (And those who have appreciated some of our "experiments" range in age from 3 to 80+.) We don't have a separate service, but do our best to gently subvert existing services! :) We never, never use the word alternative! We don't assume that a particular way of doing things will appeal to one specific age group. We try to be all-age! We endure some of the more dire "traditional" services (not all of them are dire) for the sake of an idea of church which is inclusive. And those who feel unsure about our innovations are equally patient with us. Maybe I'm too optimistic that things can really change, but more and more of the services at our church are becoming what I would call a "glorious jumble" of different approaches. Maybe it's not really alternative. Maybe it's not radical enough. I think we need radical groups but my guess is that their main benefit will be if the ideas they generate gradually influence the "mainstream"!


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