Friday, April 20, 2007

Emerging Church and Community

Here’s another obvious statement: The Emerging Church movement is very big on community. They are very concerned with forming and nurturing community, living out in the surrounding culture as an example of the Kingdom of God. Readers may be grumbling at this point “what is this hypercritical SOB going to find wrong with that?” I’m glad you asked.

Community may be the best thing you can do for your spiritual nurturance. We have a community that has met weekly for 30 years. At times, some members have been in the same churches; at times, our children have been at the same schools or in the same activities. We have had creative worship, shared meals, Bible study, and lots and lots of discussion, usually about the raising of children and the aging of parents.

The congregation our family worships with is a community. Even though we are a young congregation, the interaction and support of our small group is likely its greatest strength. The best school any of our children went to was a small Christian K-6, whose dominant distinctive was a community feeling among the grades. If I were to identify one thing that has provided spiritual nurturance for my children it would be community, and I think I might make the same claim for my own growth. I believe that Christian community is the primary vehicle for healing and growth.

But for all that, community is the means and not the end of the Christian faith. The idea that Christ’s primary mission was to found communites and teach them how to live together has become very popular recently in the church. You find this as a central theological point from Jim Wallis and Sojourners. It forms the basis of much of the thought of the theologians Hauerwas and Wright, and it is a very common idea in the conversation of the EC. McLaren anchors all his subsequent conclusions to it. It is common, in fact, thoughout the church of the West in the late 20th – early 21st C. There is a strong tendency to see the Sermon on the Mount as the central focus of the Bible, in contrast to the more familiar focus on Holy Week, the cross, and the resurrection.

A simple question. A question, surely, that an Assistant Village Idiot would ask: If directions for living in community are the point, then why have a death and resurrection at all? In fact, why even bother with the Incarnation? I can see two possible escape routes, which I will forego here for reasons of length, that hold out the promise of preserving this doctrine of the preeminence of community. But both, in my estimation, come to dead ends.

I have not encountered any people from the emerging conversation who deny the resurrection, or consider it unimportant. There are many who view the matter much as I do, seeing community as the vehicle rather than the destination. But there are also many who are influential in the conversation who declare quite boldly that the founding of communites that “reflect the Kingdom” is the main point. Some seem to hold the words “kingdom” and “community” as interchangeable, or at least interpenetrating.
This would seem at first glance to be only a moderate change of emphasis. We and they both believe in community, we and they both believe in the resurrection, but we emphasise the one and they emphasise the other. What’s the problem?

Groups already tend to graft cultural items onto their religion. The things that a circle of believers “just know” about the faith merge subtly with other things that circle “just knows” about economics, sexual morality, food choices, and a hundred other bits of culture. One of the major claims of the Emerging Church is that the traditional church has attached too many cultural effects of modernism to the gospel. We have, according to that narrative, elevated rationality, text, order, and control as parts of the meaning of Christianity.

Elevation of visible community to the central role in the faith has already accentuated this. The EC is already a Gen-X, Arts & Humanities Tribe phenomenon – I think Gen Y is still to be determined. Whatever Gen-X, Arts & Humanities Tribe people outside the faith believe has become the default position for those inside the church in matters of nutrition and health, environmentalism, what society should tolerate, attitudes toward work – just about anything. Keeping one’s own subculture when joining the faith is fine. Coming to believe that your subculture is the faith is something else again.

All of us deny that we do any such thing, of course. We find things that are legitimate parts of the gospel as received and pair them with secular values that are similar. This can be either positive or negative. The worth of the individual is a secular value that derives at least in part from the gospel, and has been strongly embraced by the church over the last few centuries. We can see how it goes wrong in viewing a culture of narcissism and entitlement. But the core idea is compatible with Christianity, and even draws from it. It is very easy for those of us steeped in that individual-worth culture to come to believe that it is part of the gospel to be preached.

It may be that living in community and out in the urban society will be a corrective to this insularity, that contact with other tribes will dilute the current cultural identity of the EC. If the EC continues to attract some from the Science and Technology, Business, Government and Union, and Military Tribes they may reach escape velocity from their own narrow culture. But it is more usual that dominant values become self-reinforcing in the group, as with the Amish attitude toward technology, the Quaker/Shaker attitude toward simplicity, or the Baptist attitude toward alcohol.

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