A friend on Facebook sent a couple of questions to me via chat yesterday that I thought could be more easily answered in an article than in short bursts on instant messaging. I've written about my thoughts on postmodernism, its effects on theology and the church before, but it's an important enough subject to revisit from time to time.
His first question was (and I'm paraphrasing):
What do you think about the emerging church movement?
First, I think he rightly identifies it as a movement, more viral in nature than any particular institution would tend to propagate a set of ideals. I told him that I felt that emerging church, as an idea, is a natural byproduct of postmodern culture. In short, postmodernism challenges the more dichotomous, black-and-white, either-or thinking of modernism. Postmodernism suggests that the dualistic attitudes of modernism, which began as early as the Enlightenment, paint an overly simplistic picture of reality. In the United States in particular, postmodernism has found voice as our culture becomes increasingly pluralistic and those lines we believed were clear before begin to blur.
As for the emerging church movement, I told him that I see this as a natural response to postmodern thought. Though our understanding of what exactly emerging church is varies by individual (typically postmodern, isn't it?), there are a handful of general attributes that I see as defining what emerging church is:
- A value of community over institutional membership.
- An emphasis on service-based ministry over traditional evangelism for the sake of conversion.
- A call to live out ministry in the cultural context where you find yourself, rather than expecting the community to come to you through the institutional church.
- A focus on trying to live as Christ lived and taught, rather than propping up church dogma, doctrine or any one particular statement of faith.
As for defining emerging church beyond this, I find it hard to do. Some claim it's a predominantly liberal movement, and in so much as one defines "liberal" as downplaying the importance of institutional and doctrinal authority, I suppose that's accurate. But I know social conservatives and progressives who identify as part of the emerging church movement, along with agnostics and evangelicals.
Emerging church does not promote a specific Christology or set of theological ideals, as this would be contrary to the very concept from which it came. This doesn't mean that, on occasion, some folks won't try to co-opt the emerging church label on behalf of their own particular agenda, but such labels end up falling away.
My friend's second question was:
Isn't postmodernism giving way to a kind of hyper-modernism?
I think this is an astute observation, especially with the growing visibility of such people as John Piper and Mark Driscoll. However, my short answer to his question would be "no."
I think that any time a new worldview begins to take hold, there will be some degree of push-back from those entrenched in the prior way of seeing things. This is especially true for individuals and institutions that stand to benefit from things staying the way they are. In this case, religious fundamentalism -- whether from the right or left -- depends on a more dichotomous, either-or way of thinking. So any alternative to this understanding of the world is considered a threat.
Although more fundamentalist, doctrinal and/or dogmatic approaches to religion may be more vocal in their reaction to postmodernism and the emerging church, this does not necessarily mean that they are gaining popular momentum. On the contrary, as a more people understand the world in pluralistic, fluid (some might argue relativistic) terms, such vocal opposition seems increasingly out of step with reality. As technology allows us to exchange ideas and experiences more easily and rapidly, and as our communities reflect an increasingly heterogeneous face, efforts to draw clear lines and define life with absolute, monolithic clarity simply begin to lose credibility.
So in short, though there are "hyper-modern" advocates who would have us believe that postmodernism and the emerging church are merely the passing fad of the moment, a longer-term, broader perspective reinforces the idea that we cannot simply go back to old ways of thinking when the world around us is so much more integrated, fluid and diverse than ever before in history.
Such changes simply can't be undone, despite the vocal cries for a return to the ways of the past. You can't un-open the box.