The submerging church: how deep church and the emerging church can help each other...

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    It used to be about 'hand-me-downs,' items past down through the family but now we are entering a world of 'hand-me-ups.'  Phones, cameras, mp3 players are now being given to parents by their children as they upgrade to the next new thing [no doubt the parents are grateful for the on-tap technical support!]. 

The emerging church in many ways is a positive and exciting move of God that is engaging a generation and is resulting in many valuable 'hand-me-ups' to its parent church, in its exploration and engagement with the 'post' generation. 

However, is there a danger that we in the emerging church forget also the tradition that has been handed down to us?  What happens as we as a conversation grow, as the novelty of the 'post' world wears thin, when the rest of the church has caught up with us 'early adopters' and a new generation has overtaken us with the latest of church engagement:

  • are we destined to become a novelty seeking, emotional, reactionary movement, defining ourselves by our angst with the modern church?  or
  • are we able to mature grace-fully rather than stagnate - to continue to blend the best of the Spirit inspired new things with the best of the Spirit inspired past?

This article will explore some ways in which the emerging church can recognising our place in the chain of faith past down to us through the traditions and practices of the church and taking in our place in handing on a deeper faith, blended with our own unique contribution, to those who will proceed us... It is a recognition that whilst we have 'deep' pools of life to contribute we also have our own shallows as well and therfore I think we need to be connected to the an ongoing cycle of handing on, handing down and handing up of the christian faith, practices and traditions...

This piece has been particularly inspired by Luke Bretherton's chapter in 'Remembering our Future' on the emerging church and by Andrew Walker's essay on paradosis in the same book.

Hand-me-ups - contributions of the emerging church

We in the emerging church may be shaped  by:

but that does not mean that such origins are not part of the ongoing new work of Jesus and the Spirit in the church.  In many ways the emerging church reflects the 'new' of what is good/healthy/positive about church in the same way that in their time the new churches, charismatic renewal and Pentecostalism [and all the way back to the Church Fathers] were in their time the van guard of  waves of postive Spirit filled life that have impacted and washed over the church. 

There is no particular need for us to get big headed or consider ourselves better than others, indeed as many people have acknowledged being involved in the vortex of emerging church can be both a very painful and a very hopeful process. 

Whilst I recognise that what follows is my own particular stable of emerging church hobby horses, I would like to suggest that you may recognise these as key areas of contribution that I see the emerging church pioneering/exploring/handing up,  which will have wider benefit for the church at large (and please do comment and suggest others that I have missed):

1. Conversation -an openness and opportunities to engage with Christians from a variety of traditions.  If it is more focused on those who agree with us then with our critics that is perhaps our evidence of our flawed human nature.  However, the fact that we are practicing conversation, listening to each other and learning both from across traditions/denominations and across history is a skill that I think will be essential in a Deep Church reality.

2. Co-operation – out of the openness comes a spirit of cooperation that is allowing a consensus to form around the particular key emphasises of emerging conversation – such as:

  • Community – both as a gathering of people who recognise Jesus as Lord and in participating in our wider communities to live out that reality.  This is closely linked to:    

o Image - Imago dei -a growing understanding that we are image bearers – a people called and created in the image of the tri-une God who is in eternal other centred communion as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and

 o Mission – missio dei- that the tri-une God is engaged in calling a people to bear his image and to make himself known.  As cracked image bearers we are following  cruciform way of Jesus in this mission, through the power of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Father.

  • Language – talking and thinking in ways that we understand – stories, image, questions; and
  • Invitation – allowing people to experience through us and for themselves, recognising that there are practices that keep us open to the daily invitation ‘to pick up our cross and follow Christ.’

3. Remembering – at its best the emerging church conversation has let us draw on the bible, Christian tradition, practice to be shaped by and recognition that forms of Christianity can be responses to our place in history. 

This can help us be open to trying out new forms and incorporating from the wider Christian tradition to do so – recognising that there are many ways to express/do/be church as part of the culture/context we find ourselves in.  The conversation then becomes not so much that my way is THE right way but that it is one way of many. 

At its worst we can be guilty of reacting against our past and seeing the solution as removing the practice i.e. preaching is monologue/irrelevant therefore jettison it rather than how can we re-imagine preaching to be a process that helps spiritual formation for our own context.

4. Reconnecting – the conversation at its best places an emphasis on reconnecting, of recognising that polarity is not necessarily constructive – within the Christian tradition there is plenty of scope to disagree, express difference and look/be different – a generous orthodoxy.  However the conversation has also put an emphasis on reconnecting, rather than either/or the catch phrase has become both/and - for example, emphasising right belief AND right practice, faith AND works etc.

5. Character – finally there has been an aspiration that our faith should be less about being right and more about being good – being generous, thinking the best of each other, a recognition that we all have our blind spots, faults and flaws and trying to own [and be open] about  our ones of these. 

At its best the emerging church compares its worst to others worst and its best to others best – welcomes critique [both of itself and the wider church from within and without of the church] and learns from the experience of such bench marking.  This attitude of generous humility is for me the stand out characteristic of the best of the conversation.  

Positive engagement  - I have taken a positive approach to both the “emerging” and “church” in emerging church and the conversation that has sprung up – in part this reflects my own +ive bias and belief that church is a needed ongoing institution to both transmit and deepen my faith. 

It is not a comprehensive survey and I would welcome your own thoughts on the best of the emerging conversation.   Whilst there is much to welcome in the emerging church conversation I think there is much that embracing a deep church perspective can enrich our conversation, perspective and practice - where we need to embrace the hand-me-down of 2,000 years of faithful church tradition and practice...

Hand-me-down to be handed on - engaging in deep church

The very nature of the best of the emerging church conversation makes us ripe to be open to the idea and practice of deep church - for example: a recognition of the ongoing need for a faith that is about more than ourselves, a realisation of how often we have been wrong in the past and that we need each other rather than depend on ourselves to live this life of faith in following Christ.

Deep church opens us up to a both a critique and way of practicing our faith which I think will lead to not only an emphasis on the best of the emerging conversation but also sustain that conversation, of helping us both embrace continuity and discontinuity...

1. Rediscovering our churchianity

Deep church allows us to place ourselves in the emerging church as part of the history and tradition of the church.  It allows us to see that we are hold the common traditions of the faith, the creeds etc in common - whilst we agree on the content we are then free to give each other permission to have differing forms that reflect these practices.

The history of the church shows us that Christians have practiced gathering together as larger community to testify to remember the story as part of the people of God and gathered together in smaller groups to share their life with each other. 

It is this practice that deep church helps us to reconnect too, to not get lost so much in the contents but in creating a space in our lives where we are reminded that we belong to someone else.  The inconvenience and cost of church helps us re-orientate our lives and creates a space where we can remind ourselves of why we have chosen to gather and in who's name we do.

Deep church allows us to recognise that the church is not our idea but God's. It is Jesus who has instituted the church and the church remained the primary agency of both passing on the christian faith and in helping Christians live in that faith.

2. Mission of God as an invitation to and an ongoing way of different orientated life

Whilst it is helpful to emphasise that our life of worship should only be centred on our christian community but in sacramental people, broken for the world around us, we should not fool ourselves that the rhythms of our lives our largely shaped not by our worship of God but out of our convenience/social patterns. 

Mission, is vital and by default takes place in those other rhythm shaped places, it also needs to help people understand and explore the practice of setting time aside - in an age where our time is limited, precious and commodified [time is money] it becomes part of the counter cultural christian witness that we choose to set time aside to be with each other and together to worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In an age where, Jason Clark has said, that it 'would be more of a miracle for someone to change their diary commitments then to be raised from the dead,we must be aware of the danger of a mission that:

  • calls people to be join the people/community of God but provides no place to gather;and/or
  • does not challenge that people need to believe and belong and lets them continue to order their lives as they choose [or still belong to what they wish and believe in more].

Our understanding of the church as the body of Christ, our learning from church history of the ongoing need for that body to broken for the world, to serve it, love it and express the different reality of God's kingdom - and then invite people to join with us, who are joined with Christ - lets us both experience in both the pain and the glory, the hurt and the honour, the imperfection and brokenness that is being made new.

3. Deep Church remains both deeply offensive and deeply attractive...

Offensive... because it asks us to put face and struggle with our own imperfection, our favouritism, our cliques, and ultimately our own consumer choice.  Church as a gathering of people who are marked not by their similarity of social standing, theology, age, gender, race but by our choice to love each other.  Not out of some altruistic brotherhood of man or some primal fear but because we are ourselves are loved, accepted and equal because of the love of Christ - we are found in Christ, crucified with him so we can live with him - invited through him to dwell in eternal community and union with the one God in three persons. 

Church therefore is practice, we will offend each other, we will be hurt by each other, we will do crap things in crap ways, our egos will rise to the surface, our fears and suspicions will cause us to doubt ourselves and each other.

Attractive... because it offers us hope of discovering who we are, finding our identity even as we're accepted, facing our fears and our shortcomings, challenged and encouraged - the voices not just of our community in the here and now but the cloud of witnesses from across the ages who are cheering us on, sharing their wisdom and experience through practices handed down and infused and informed by the life giving creative Spirit which allows us to hand me up and refresh the wider church. 

4. Unity in our diversity

Our understanding of ourselves as christians who are part of a chain of faith that stretches back to the very early church and beyond us into the future gives us both a perspective and a challenge- a perspective that we have a story, a history and a heritage that is bigger than ourselves and explains why we are who we are with the beliefs and practices that we do - it is in that common tradition that we share far more in common then separates us.

One day we will become old churches and have left our own contribution to the ongoing unfolding tradition - a challenge because we are asked to be faithful witnesses to our generation, to pass the faith forward and in that we are united in a common purpose and cause that transcends our own hobby horses and pet peeves - to know Jesus and make him known. 

In the face of that common tradition and common mission we must ask ourselves how we can be for the other?  How can we co-operate rather than compete?  To give away and to share rather than to take for ourselves and our own success? 

For instance mission or evangelism becomes not about my church growing at the expense of the church down the street, or as an Elijah style playoff to determine who's theology is really the best - but about how can we co-operate as the church in the town, city, area that we live.  How can we a body of Christ in an area not just in a denomination - so that one church brings people, another a venue, another the contacts with people in need - so that no one is greater but in all and through all Christ receives the glory.

5. Regaining confidence in the gospel

If the emerging church has a weakness [ok we have many!] it is that we lack confidence in the gospel - we are uncertain how to communicate the truths of our christian tradition - how do we have both good news about our own lives, how do we talk about sin, how does Jesus save us, how do we get reconnected as image bearers and start living out the God whose image we are formed in?  This is particularly problematic in an age of the individual when choosing to submit our lives to any other authority other than our own is deeply unpopular. 

Admittedly the emerging church conversation on christianity being about life now on earth doing the will of the Father, rather than an escape to heaven, is a welcome correction to the almost gnostic approach of salvation being about saving souls and escaping this mess of a planet.  It is a welcome reconnection to the material tradition of christianity that we follow a material God who demonstrated this not least by coming as a 'mewling puking helpless baby,' that same baby who became resurected from the dead and ascended as a recognisable phyisical human -although one in all the fulness of humanity we can one day to also be.

However,  is it easier for us in the emerging church to talk about how we can make the world a better place, how we can consume in more ethical ways, live in a greener way, be more open, just and tolerant and find ourselves engaging in our own current interests [there is after all no need to be a christian to care for the planet, or the poor, or to opt to buy organic or fairly traded - indeed how much of these are just the trappings of our own liberal west middle class mindset - where we have the time, money and education to live in this way?]

Deep church invites us to have confidence in the gospel, to learn from the riches of the different ways the church has expressed it, how church itself is part of the ongoing story - the place where people gather to hear the story, to share the story, to be invited into God's story rather than be God's of our own. 

It gives us confidence not in our words, language, novelty value but in the work of the Spirit and Jesus in growing his church.  Whilst we do need to find new ways of retelling the old old story in our culture and context, deep church lets us learn from the past, to hear different ways and let our own imaginations be infused and inspired.

In conclusion...

I have sketched out some thoughts of why I think we in the emerging church can bring benefit too and benefit from engaging with deep church.  The latter perhaps even more so given that we are just one generation of church expression and are invited to take our place amongst that glorious crowd of witnesses cheering on each faithful generation.

Whilst it is important for the emerging story to engage with what God is doing now we also need to be informed of how we are all part of God’s story, just as we are all parts of the body of Christ. So whilst we can critique the institutional church we must also be open to being critiqued, whilst we can contribute and bring out new things we are also able to learn from what has gone before...

Paul Mayers

Your thoughts:

  • what contribution do you think the emerging church conversation brings as a 'hand-me-up' of Spirit breathed tradition and practice of the faith?
  • what is your reaction to the suggested benefits of 'deep church' enagement?  What do you agree with?  Disagree with? Feel inspired by?
  • What do you think will help the emerging church conversation emerge and mature? How can we both hand our faith on and take our place in cheering on christians across traditions and time?