What is Happening to the Church?

Gordon MacDonald (pastor, seminary chancellor and editor of Christianity Today’s “Leadership Journal”) has written a novel entitled Who Stole my Church? about a group of Christians wrestling with the many ways church has changed since they were young.  Often we see changes in our own church and think our experience is unique.  Many writers observe that our entire culture is in a time of intense change.  Are adaptive changes in the church a good thing or a bad thing?  A sign of falling away, or a sign of revival?

Recently the elders asked me to try to find ways to communicate why church culture has changed so much in the past few years. Over the next several months I plan to write a number of “editorials” to help explain why our experience of church is so different than it was only 50 years ago.  Of course, if you consider how Toronto has changed since 1963 the fact that Toronto’s churches have also changed should come as no surprise.

Whether changes we see happening in the church delight or alarm us (or both!), it is important to understand what lies behind all the change.  I hope these articles will help us interact meaningfully with developments that are presently affecting churches throughout the western world.

A Century and a Half of Constant Change

In his book The Starfish Manifesto Wolfgang Simson, a German theologian and church leader, writes, “Probably the largest reformation of all times in Church history is in full swing.”  That is a bold statement!   Many church observers report that we live in a time of very significant change.

The church is always changing or, in the slogan of the 16th century reformers, “always reforming.”  Phyllis Tickle has written a couple of excellent books about this, both of which are available in our Spring Garden Resource Centre.  I very highly recommend both.  In The Great Emergence she describes how every 500 years or so throughout Christian history the Church has experienced a dramatic turning point.

(A quick clarification may be in order here regarding three words that are  quite similar but have different meanings in current literature about church life.  “Emergence Christianity” refers to the sum total of changes in the past century or so.  “The Emerging Church” generally refers to a more specific movement in the past 25 years that is characterized by a generally positive attitude toward continuing this change.  “Emergent Church” refers to an even more specific movement within “The Emerging Church.”)

In her book Emergence Christianity (which the pastoral team has been reading and discussing together this winter) Phyllis Tickle describes how the past 150 years have seen a number of movements and events leading to the reformation Wolfgang Simson described.  It is hard to define a starting point, but perhaps the Christian anti-slavery movement and reaction to it is as good a starting point as any.  Merging with many other things happening in western culture at the time, the debate about slavery was, at least in part, a debate about how to read the Bible and what should be important to Christian mission and ministry. Many American denominations split not only over slavery itself, but also over the theological issues related to the debate.

Many seemingly unrelated events and discussions are part of the consequent emergence: the publication of ­ In His Steps in 1897, a Christian novel that introduced the question: “What would Jesus do?” and answering with a clear call to social action; the Azusa Street Revival that started in 1906 and gave birth to the world-wide Pentecostal movement; the publication of “The Fundamentals” in 1909 providing an early expression to Christian Fundamentalism; the split between T.T. Shields and the Baptist Convention creating two, and then three major “brands” of Baptists in Ontario; the creation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner to the NDP) in western Canada as a political expression of Christian ideals; the surge in missionary enterprise after World War II, including the founding of World Vision as an evangelical agency for world relief and development; the Second Vatican Council; the charismatic movement; the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 reuniting social action with evangelism in evangelical mission; the division of congregations into cell groups and house churches; the Vineyard and development of “contemporary worship”… 

Whew! And that only is a broad picture of all the things included in emergence.  They all draw toward forms of worship, preaching, mission, ministry, theology, and church life that are dramatically different from a century ago. 

Signs of Emergence in the Church

Emerging Christians represent a wide assortment of theological viewpoints and may or may not be affiliated with a broad range of denominations.  Broadly speaking, emerging Christians seek relevant ways to speak the truth of the Gospel into changing culture.  Every cultural institution meets change with both welcome and resistance.  In church history, every reformation entails a counter-reformation.  The emerging church tends to embrace change rather than reacting against it.

While emerging churches reflect many theological positions, there are some values and characteristics easily found across the spectrum.  These include but are not limited to the following: recognition that culture in the western world is no longer “Christian” and thus requires different approaches to ministry and mission; a more relational approach to teaching methods and content; an interest in recovering early Christian patterns of worship and spirituality; concern for the poor and justice issues; the value of authenticity; the importance of living out God’s mission in the world; the church as an egalitarian community.

Some writers who represent the emerging church include Alan Hirsch, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, Leonard Sweet, Michael Frost, Dan Kimball and Brian McLaren.  If you have read more than one of these authors you already know that they do not agree on everything!

Given the caveat that to identify with the emerging church is to joyfully differ with other emerging Christians while feeling that we are all part of the same family, I find that on most issues I resonate with the concerns and ideas of emerging Christians.

Over the next several weeks in future “Musings” I will try to explain these characteristics of emergence along with some others.  I would love to have many conversations about this.  If you would like me to come to your Life Group for several weeks to unpack these ideas or if you would like to become part of a discussion group that might meet either Sunday before or after worship or Sunday evening – please let me know.

Gene T