Theological shift

My recent musings on Emerging Church have also been getting me thinking about some of the theological underpinnings of EC and, to a degree, traditional church. At the moment I’m still trying to get them straight in my head and one mechanism for me to do that is to do a bit of a brain-dump on here. That’s really just to serve as a warning that this particular blog post is probably going to be even more incoherent than usual and will almost certainly present a point of view which is far from fixed and will need considerable refinement.

It has also been prompted by a couple of questions from Scott, and in particular his most recent question about some of the underlying assumptions we make when ‘doing mission’. So, in no particular order, some thoughts on theology (and more to follow in subsequent posts).

In or out? The fundamental premise of traditional church seems to be similar to one of the old lottery slogans – “You have to be in it to win it.”  Simplistically put, salvation comes through acknowledging Jesus as Lord and coming to church. That’s deliberately over-simplistic but I believe it captures much of the essence of where traditional church seems to be at the moment. Even more mission-minded churches, with great outreach programmes, still seem to have ‘come and join us’ as the underlying motive. Underlying this emphasis is the RC doctrine of there being no salvation apart from the church. Protestant doctrine nuances this somewhat but still has a focus on being ‘called into community’. Evangelical emphasis is much more biased towards individualism (consider how many phrases used by evangelicals are about ‘personal saviour’ or individuals coming to a ‘saving faith’) but still with the expectation that once someone has made that ‘personal decision for Christ’, they will readily come to church.

EC attempts to turn this on its head somewhat. Its stated aim is to take the sacred into the secular – to transform the secular by being the body of Christ in the world. Slogans like, “find where God is at work and join in,” are often bandied around as being the ‘real’ missional approach. EC is very much about an integrated faith and life and so one’s face suffuses every aspect of our interaction with our secular surroundings. Actually, to be entirely fair to EC, this distinction between the sacred and the secular is seen by EC as a false one. If we speak of God being active in the world, how can we speak of it as being secular? And so, for that reason, to behave one way when in church and to behave differently in society is to display a lack of integrity.

Mission, therefore, is not about evangelising to bring people in, but to participate in the missio Dei and bring about something of the Kingdom here and now, albeit in a provisional form. The extreme of this view gets me on my eschatological hobby-horse though. I find that (despite the popularity of NT Wright within EC theological circles) EC theology falls to far into the ‘realised eschatology’ camp. It’s not necessarily a bad place to be but I think it leads to a works-based (or perhaps works-biased)  soteriology. Maybe this isn’t an entirely fair criticism, but I sense that it shifts in that direction.

Which links me in to another issue associated with the missional style EC adopts. Picking up on the soteriology issue, it begs the question about the ‘Great Commission’ laid upon Christians. Is ‘making disciples’ a matter of showing people that the ‘good work’ they are doing is really God’s work and getting them to acknowledge that and keep working (this is the works-based soteriology coming through)? Because it seems to me that if we acknowledge that God is at work in the world, and that all good works ultimately flow from Him, then there is actually little or no imperative for evangelism. I suppose that one could argue that by bringing a person to faith, their works can become even more effective as they understand their importance and their focus. It means that the works that they do which are less God-oriented can be revised to make them so.

There is, of course, all manner of middle ground, nuanced by other theological suppositions, but it seems that these are some of the theological issues which traditional church needs to wrestle with if it is to co-exist happily with EC. I think that part of the reason that there is suspicion on both sides is that the focus has largely been upon the ‘visible’ – the way each ‘do’ church. I’m not sure that the underlying theological reasons for each side’s has been made obvious. On the part of established church it has often just been assumed that people understand why things are done the way they are done and there is little questioning of it. For EC, their problem is that the underlying theological justifications haven’t really been made voiced effectively. Too much of it has been reaction to established church. There are not too many works enunciating and evaluating the underlying theology of EC from the point of view of what EC does (rather than why they don’t do what established church does).

Someone asked me recently what my position was on EC and I had to answer that I am a ‘supportive sceptic’. I suppose that until I become convinced that the same theological rigour has been applied to EC as the established church has had to deal with (and I might not necessarily agree with some of the positions found in the established church, but at least I understand why they hold them) then I will always be sceptical of EC practices. At the moment I’m simply not convinced that the cry of holistic/integrated faith and life rings true. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just an excuse for not getting out of bed on a Sunday morning.

4 responses to “Theological shift”

  1. John, I am not sure this way of understanding mission is something that is particular to the EC (or has come about with the EC). As one who has looked into mission for a while now I am a little bit suspicious about this branding exercise. I think that it might be better to say that the church through it’s Christendom era lost mission dei for missio ecclesia which became its practice by default. Therefore I feel that the church’s mission should be by default missio dei (in Christ’s way).

  2. Hi Nelu,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Yes, you’re correct – that particular presentation of mission is not exclusive to EC, but where established church has come to encompass both missio Dei and missio ecclesia, EC still has that narrow focus. I’m not sure it is simply a ‘branding exercise’ though (but I suspect it is in many cases) and I think that it has much to offer the established church. If nothing else it forces established church to re-evaluate its practices. But I think it can do more than that as well if the church doesn’t get sucked in to its ‘trendiness’ and uses it to fulfil aspects of its mission and ministry where it is, sadly, failing.

  3. john–

    a few quick thoughts.

    you seem rooted in mission tightly coupled with salvation.  and you’ve expressed a ‘right-here-right-now’ eschaton for ec.  a few questions:

    how is salvation determined, expressed, moved toward, and realized in a ‘right-here-right-now’ eschaton?

    how is salvation determined, expressed, moved toward, and realized in a ‘jesus has not yet returned but will some day’ eschaton?

    how is salvation determined, expressed, moved toward, and realized in a ‘there really isn’t any future event like the parousia ever going to happen’ (lack of) eschaton?

    because i think how you choose to engage the world and each other (works)in (or not in, as the case may be)  intentional faith communites will be different depending on what you perceive salvation to be in each of these types of eschaton, and how much weight salvation carries in your mission.


  4. Scott,

    You’ve anticipated my next post (when I get a chance to write it). In my mind your questions lie at the very heart of what drives us as ‘church’ – our imperative, if you like. It’s also why I think our eschatology is absolutely crucial (as I’ve written about in the past). If we don’t know where we are going, how do we hope to get there?

    I confess a strong affinity with NT Wright and his recent exploration of inaugurated eschatology. From what I’ve read of some expressions of EC, despite the claimed attachment to NT Wright, I think they may be misreading him and have ‘overly-realised’ their eschatology (at least in terms of NT Wright).

    One might argue that such a position is a ‘middle ground’ and therefore a compromise. I suppose it does explain my sympathy for EC but with a desire to see them ‘firm up’ their theology. It also means I full sympathise with the apparent dualism found in, perhaps the more evangelical, parts of established church. However, I remain sceptical about EC as a ‘branding exercise’ as Nelu terms it. I do wonder if it is simply a ‘re-balancing’ of the missiological scales with established church a bit behind the curve, as it always will be.

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