God is Setting All Things Right. So I am Blogging Through the Bible in a Year.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review 6: Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger

For my final book review for the Church Planting class, I decided to read the book that first began studying this new expression of Christianity entitled Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Also, it was co-written by the professor of the Church Planting class, Ryan Bolger.  Bolger is currently the Associate Professor of Church in Contemporary Culture at Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies. Eddie Gibbs is the Senior Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies though partially retired.
In Emerging Churches, they attempt to give a snapshot of emerging churches in the USA and England. These two places were chosen based on budgetary issues and a similarity in culture. The book is organized into 11 chapters. The first chapter gives the cultural situation out of which these expressions of church emerged. The second chapter gives an overview of emerging churches and some of their identifying features. Chapters three through five give the theoretical tenants of most emerging churches. Chapters 6-10 describe the more practical and active components of most emerging churches. Chapter 11 serves as a summary of all of their findings and will be skipped in the chapter-by-chapter comments below. There are two appendices giving the story of each of the 50 church founders they contacted and their methodology for the study itself.
The description of the cultural setting for these expressions of church is very rooted in a postmodern mindset, though they would be considered more constructive than deconstructive in their approach to contextualized forms of church. The traditional church structure and mindset is becoming quite foreign when compared to where their cultures have shifted. The emerging churches are attempting to re-contextualize for the new culture by producing a new form of church, mentioned in chapter two.
The emerging church is not a group of young people rebelling against old people. In fact, the thing that surprised me the most about these groups is that they are not attempting to “reach” any group of people. They are Christians who had become strangers to their peers and began to see that their expression of church was the major reason people rejected God. Gibbs and Bolger summarized the principles in this way (each color representing a different aspect of the emerging church, so I have taken out the numbers):
Emerging churches, as they are embodied in postmodern cultures, are those who take the life of Jesus as a model way to live, who transform the secular realm, as they live highly communal lives [essential aspects]. Because of these three activities, they welcome those who are outside, they share generously, they participate, create, they lead without control, and function together in spiritual activities [derivatives of the essential aspects].”  (p. 45)
Chapter 3 “Identify with Jesus” show how they have attempted to return their theology from a Pauline-focused to Christ-centered. This is something that is greatly needed in the church today. The only possible critique of this theology is that it must be balanced so that Paul and the epistles do not become obsolete or minimized. At the same time, this shift is a needed one.
Chapter 4 “Transforming Secular Space” is one I believe is amongst the most important and needed critiques of the church today. Often we stay in our buildings and corners and wonder why the world around us rejects God. Emerging churches take worshiping God in the heart language and in the heart way in a unique way by re-merging the dichotomy of sacred and secular.
Chapter 5 “Living as Community” returns the focus of the church from the institution to a family. This is a needed shift because churches have often become a volunteer organization where people come to socialize and perform rituals and then separate never to see each other again until the next week. Emerging churches live as a community and define their community by the members of their church instead of the other way around.
Chapter 6 “Welcoming the Stranger” describes a shift in evangelism. Instead of going to people and telling them to change their beliefs, they want to focus on becoming intimately involved in their friends’ lives (or inviting outsiders to join their lives) and allowing the Spirit to move them to become Christians. Chapter 7 “Serving with Generosity” presents a similar swing in the rationale behind service. In them, benevolence is less about impressing people to come to their church or giving a handout for the sake of humanity but becoming the gospel to others so they might see our good works and give glory to God. The only possible negative critique of this shift is can they become so open and accepting of all people that the gospel is lost in niceness? For example, if a Buddhist saw their good works and wanted to join them, a balanced approach would be to actively encourage that person to allow the God of creation to lead them though not condemning them and requiring them to forsake their entire Buddhist philosophy of life. I think they are close to this mindset and appreciate their balance so far.
Chapters 8, “Participating as Producers,” and 9, “Creating as Created Beings,” focus on encouraging all Christians to create whether it is in the worship setting and sharing their talents there or outside the corporate setting and creating art, music, dance, etc. for the glory of God. All of this is worship in that it is for the glory of God.
Chapter 10, “Leading as a Body” entails how they have shifted from a hierarchal structure to a flat structure focused on giving all a voice. Of all the principles, this is one I could map directly to the Restoration Movement and find where our tradition and how we have read the Bible helps them as they challenge us. Leadership can become so flat that confusion and anarchy reign. This means there has to be a leader (or leaders) who have the authority to lead. In this way, the Restoration Movement has excelled. At the same time, emerging churches stress leaders who are appointed based on their ability to be spiritual guides for the group. Although the Restoration Movement has stressed this in the past, it is more commonplace that church have appointed elders who were more successful businessmen (in my tradition, only men are appointed by the congregation in the position of elder) or older than the rest. Ministers were brought in from far away because of their resumes instead of their ability to teach the congregation. In this, emerging churches can challenge Churches of Christ to acknowledge men who are currently serving instead of appointing people they think will serve well.
Overall, I believe this book is an excellent study in allowing the leaders of each church describe itself. Their uncritical descriptions allow the reader to decide if these actions are biblical, beneficial or best for their situation. For this, I am grateful for reading Emerging Churches.
Gibbs, Eddie, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging churches : creating Christian community in postmodern cultures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.