Making Sense of the Emerging Church

The term emerging church is used by lots of people nowadays and, somewhat confusingly, often seems to be used by different people to mean quite different things. For some it’s just the trend towards new and different sorts of church that may be more contemporary and relevant to today’s culture and context. To others it’s all about the dynamics of the process through which these new or fresh expressions of church arise. In this article Bob Hopkins explores three approaches to church planting and fresh expressions, showing where emerging church fits and how it relates to other forms of church.

The term emerging church is used by lots of people nowadays and, somewhat confusingly, often seems to be used by different people to mean quite different things. For some it’s just the trend towards new and different sorts of church that may be more contemporary and relevant to today’s culture and context. To others it’s all about the dynamics of the process through which these new or fresh expressions of church arise.

Hirsch and Frost in their book The Shaping of Things to Come (2003, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc), use the term Emerging Church in the way in which we feel it is most helpful. Recognising that there are a variety of approaches and responses to the mission challenge of our changing context, Hirsch and Frost sharply distinguish between Emerging Church and what they call Attractional Church. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that their tone and comparison tend to communicate a rather negative attitude towards Attractional Church. As pioneers themselves developing radical new forms of church and encouraging others to do the same, this is perhaps not surprising.

As we have reflected on their two contrasting categories for describing mission response in the West today, we have actually come up with a third category, which we think sits between Attractional and Emerging Church. Furthermore, we think that all three approaches can be really effective and produce positive mission outcomes. The key determining factors being to do with the existing church on the one hand and the chosen mission context on the other. We describe these three in summary as follows:

Attractional Church – COME!

Admittedly this approach does not change the prevailing attitude and enterprise of most churches, which is to focus on the invitation to “Come”, rather than Jesus’ command to “Go”. Nonetheless within our decaying Christendom context, for some churches it is appropriate and probably the only realistic response that they can make. At the heart of doing the Attractional thing well, is obviously to mobilise the existing members to make positive invitations. Then when visitors come through the doors, it is vital that they receive a really good welcome. Much research has indicated that Western churches are generally extremely poor at welcome. It’s not only possible, then, but likely that visitors will attend the church service and leave without anybody having spoken to them, let alone given them as warm and sensitive welcome and offer of appropriate follow up. Many Western churches still have the phenomenon of casual Sunday visitors. Addressing their welcome ministry can pay major dividends for growth in an Attractional mode. Clearly the other major area for Attractional churches is that they pay attention to the pattern of their services, and particularly to the message shared. The style of the worship and community need to relate to the culture of the casual visitors or invitees, and the message needs to address the life issues of these people 7 days a week.

Engaged Church – GO, get involved and then invite to COME!

This mission response begins to change the direction from “Come” to “Go” with existing church members encouraged, trained and equipped to engage in one or many of the contexts in which the church is set. This may involve a whole range of activities including personal evangelism, identifying needs and aspirations and working in partnership with others concerned for the community. Ann Morissey is one of the best authors to describe these processes of partnership and the three directional flow of the Gospel that can result (in her book Beyond the Good Samaritan). However, having made the major shift in direction to go and get involved with the lives of those beyond the church, as these relationships begin to bear fruit and the Gospel creates responses, those responding are then invited to come to church as we do it. Obviously a major factor influencing whether this good missionary engagement yields sustainable church growth will depend on whether the lessons of Attractional Church have also been learnt, such that those that respond to the invitation to come find a warm welcome and a relevant and contemporary faith community that does not present too big a hurdle for them to cross.

Emerging Church – GO and STAY and see what EMERGES!

This has in common with the Engaged model that Christians actively get involved in communities beyond the church with the “Go” description defining their engagement. Similar principles of good practice of this mission engagement will apply as with the Engaged model of church. Listening to the community, recognising it’s needs and aspirations and working in partnership will all be crucial. However here the similarities end. As the Gospel begins to bear fruit in people’s lives there is no invitation to come to church as we have been doing it. On the contrary the whole assumption is that the responses to the Gospel in the culture and context will be allowed to give rise to a new emerging faith community that is fully indigenous to that community. This is the classic mission process described by Vincent Donovan (Christianity Rediscovered) and Bruce Olsen (Bruchko). As Hirsch and Frost describe this is clearly the most radical mission approach and the one most appropriate when large social and cultural differences exist between the missioning church and the focus community. The challenges involved for the cross-cultural missionaries are very considerable. They have to leave behind their own personal preferences and cultural practices and most particularly forget their assumptions about how church should be done. Rather they have to develop the sensitivity to support and encourage those embracing faith in Jesus to work out what their response in worship, prayer and community patterns should look like. Having said this, we have to remember that there may well be within an existing congregation or it’s fringe, representatives of the quite different cultures that may surround the existing church. In this case they will not be cross-cultural missionaries but will be bridge-people into the new contexts. They will not have to leave behind their own culture and preferences but they certainly will have to forget their memories of church as they have been doing it and the inherited mode into which they will probably have been socialised.

These three categories we find really helpful in working with churches as they seek to respond to the major challenge of mission in the West today. All three can be looked at really positively and the issue is to discern in each case how God is calling the particular church or the particular individuals within it.

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