01 November 2007

emerging christian praxis

In his talks a year ago at Westminster Theological Seminary, Scot McKnight provided a four-fold description of the emerging church movement. I've given an overview of that talk and a more detailed analysis of the first part of it, concerning postmodernity.

Now, after many months, I'd like to pick up where I left off and muse a bit about another part of McKnight's talk.

Recall, in general, that "emerging" here is a broader category than "emergent." "Emergent" refers primarily to those cohorts associated with Emergent Village and figures such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and others. But "emerging" would include a much wider array of shifts, including house churches, missional reformational groups, and even some shifts within the seeker-sensitive movement. McKnight was attempting to identify some broad commonalities among all these various trends.

In the second point of his talk, McKnight characterized the emerging church as embracing a Christian praxis that rethinks and reshapes the life of our communities. It does so, he suggested, in four ways in particular.

First, emerging worship reshapes praxis in terms of how we have traditionally "done church." Second, the emerging church tends to emphasize orthopraxy as central to Christian faith. Third, it often sees social justice as transformative suffering with others. Fourth, the emerging church sees proclamation as missionally going out to draw others towards Christ.

In this post, I will consider some of ways in which emerging communities "do church." McKnight suggests that what we see in emerging churches is an emphasis upon the creational goodness of the body and, therefore, the embodied character of worship. Emerging Christians look at the way many traditional churches have put flesh on their worship, to caricature a bit: plain pulpit-centered lecture halls where the focus is upon the pastor's words.

The way we gather, what we do when we're together, the ways in which the congregation participates (or doesn't participate), the kinds of actions we make, our posture in prayer or praise, the presence of visual arts, the choice of music, the flow of the meeting, how we connect to the wider church, how we appropriate historical forms, and so forth - none of these is value-neutral.

If it is the case the theology shapes praxis, emerging Christians want to emphasize that it is just as true that praxis shapes theology. McKnight states:
They ask this question: is the sermon the most important thing on Sunday morning because that’s all you can do when you are in room shaped as most churches are? They ask, if we sat in circles or in the round would we engender a different theology? If we lit some hippie-like incense would we see our prayers differently? If we took down the pulpit and put the preacher on the level with us would we create a clearer sense of the priesthood of all believers? If we acted out what we believe would we come to terms more emphatically with incarnation?
And these are all excellent questions that we need to wrestle with. All of us - even those of us in the most liturgically regulated traditions - have inherited sets of patterns, particular practices, and a variety of forms that are historically contingent, that arose at a time and a place as the gospel came into a particular context and shaped our way of worshiping.

Moreover, lex orandi, lex credendi is not the invention of emerging theologians, but a well-worn and time-honored principle of all Christian theology. Even the Protestant Reformation can be interpreted through the lens of worship practice, as an attempt to recover the biblical contours of worship in conversation with the earliest centuries of Christian practice, in order to wean God's people away from patterns that might obscure the gratuity of grace, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the simplicity of faith.

While particular instances of emerging worship may rightly worry us, we should be grateful that a younger generation of believers is asking important and vital questions about liturgical practice, as well as recovering some patterns from the larger Christian tradition.

Yet, there are criticisms we should consider, even apart from specific criticisms of particular worship practices.

First, emerging churches can sometimes appear to favor a kind of liturgical eclecticism - say, for instance, an inventive gathering combining video monitors, image projection, and worship stations with iconography, candles, and a eucharistic focus. But, one might object, isn't this simply a liturgical embodiment of some of the most troubling patterns of a hyper-linked, intertextual, untraditioned, consumer-driven late modernity?

Such a criticism has validity. Yet it seems to me that those of us who gravitate towards more traditional expressions - of preaching and prayer, confession and catechism, sacraments and service - should welcome any renewed interest in these patterns and practices, even from within a highly contextualized, postmodern ancient-future eclecticism.

Traditions can, of course, be appropriated in a piecemeal way or co-opted within a wider commodified religiosity. But if we believe these patterns and practices are integral to a biblical and historic Christian piety, then we can hope and expect their forms and stability to disrupt the pervasive modern evangelical consumerism. Celebrating the eucharist weekly or confessing the creeds or drawing upon ancient liturgies, done with genuine faith and piety, cannot help but challenge our priorities.

Second, some emerging Christians want to re-think how evangelicalism has "done church" and to draw upon more historic and ancient Christian traditions in order to both connect with a larger sense of what the church is and to gain a critical distance on their more immediate evangelical contexts of piety. But a criticism often voiced here is that it is not possible to draw upon traditions in an eclectic way that pulls rituals and practices away from their organic contexts.

The point of this criticism is not the same as the prior one, which pointed out concessions to consumer culture.

Rather, the criticism is that such eclecticism does violence to the traditions it seeks to draw upon. If emerging Christians really want to find a larger catholicity, to connect with history, and to draw genuinely upon wider traditions, then - the objection goes - they must do so from somewhere, from inside an established living tradition, rather than from within the swirling undercurrents of pop evangelicalism.

That's to say, perhaps emerging American evangelicals would be better off becoming Anglicans or Lutherans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics (in the UK, "emerging" churches often exist within the established church). Within the boundaries and trajectories of such traditions, there is room for experimentation and contextualization that doesn't have the same potential to distort and misappropriate the practices its taking up.

Whatever value such a suggestion might have, I think there is a need for realism in our relationships with other churches and traditions, including the emerging movement. Yes, believers continue to grow and develop in their perspectives and understanding, so that some may even come to find a home within more historic church traditions (assuming here that this is desirable). Yet, this is not going to happen with most people.

Not everyone has the time or resources to search out other alternatives or to even recognize the possible shortcomings of where they might presently find themselves (and doesn't every expression of the faith have its own liabilities?). Furthermore, typical emerging churches are very often effective missional communities, bringing the reality of gospel to engage with those who otherwise might never encounter Christ. That's something we should acknowledge and be very reticent to undermine.

To put it another way, when traditional ecclesiastical institutions find younger, non-traditional believers looking to them as role-models and examples, the response should be one of welcome - not a condescending, all-or-nothing demand to "get with the program." We may then patiently come alongside and listen, so that, if we think we have further resources to offer, we might gain the relationships and trust to make that offer in a way than can be heard and received authentically. In so doing, we can perhaps have a role in forming the consciences and discernment of those who will shape the future of evangelical worship.

Living after more than century of evangelical worship experimentation, often wholly re-making worship for every new context and generation, any interest in turning back to older, catholic forms and practices seems to me a welcome change. While traditional churches may have room to learn from our emerging sisters and brothers how to better speak the gospel to a postmodern generation, emerging churches might also learn from what we can offer, at least if we offer ourselves in humility.