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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Church Emerging

As an Indigenous Person who once swam in the stagnant waters of restorationist, patternistic Christianity -- particularly that brand espoused by the (Stone-Campbell) Church of Christ -- I have taken a deep interest in what is known as the "Emerging Church Movement."

This is so for this cross-denominational and cross-ideological religious stream has brought with it the refreshing waters of a repentant ex-colonial world.  Unlike the restorationist movement with which I was associated, this "faith current," if I may call it that, does not see itself as the religious Center  to which those in the Margins must align themselves; it acknowledges the fact that  the production and perpetuation of a faith system are not ahistorical;1 it does not seek to impose a  whole theological system  born of Victorian sensibility and the Enlightenment project upon other people who have been exposed to different historical accidents and social conventions. I may not agree with every idea that this movement has come to represent, but I do applaud its openness to dialogue and its willingness to allow Christianity to take shape in a particular country without the EuroAmerican mold with which the juggernaut of Christianity has been legitimized in the past centuries.

Fundamentalist/Conservative preachers and groups have condemned the Emerging Church for its "postmodernist" leanings.2 But if  this epithet means deconstructing Western theology so as to make Christianity more relevant and effective in the "Third World," then I welcome it.  If it means doing away with the claims of omniscience and infallibility by the rule-makers in the high places of Evangelical Christianity, then I extol it.

I am particularly impressed with the candor and humility of Brian D. McLaren as shown in his discussion on the "emerging church" (or, as he preferred to call it, the "church emerging"):

What are we in the so-called emerging churches seeking to emerge from?... We are seeking to emerge from modern Western Christianity, from colonial Christianity, from Christianity as a 'white man's religion.'

...we do not see ourselves as the emerging church -- meaning a slice, sector, or division of the church that is roughly analogous to 'the charismatic church' or 'the seeker church.' Instead, we see ourselves as the church emerging, meaning a growing edge of the church at large in all its forms, stretching from the margins into new territory beyond modern, Western Christianity.

That means we are emerging into a postcolonial faith, a post-Western faith -- not a faith that wants to forget and deny the many blessings of Christian faith in Western idioms, but a faith that no longer wants to be in denial about the dark sides of our history.  We are emerging into a new era of Christian faith as a 'living color' global community, from a religion of conquest and control to a faith of collaborative mission and humble service.  We are emerging from a version of faith that is wedded to various nationalisms, rationalisms, and political and economic ideologies into a new vision of prophetic faith that seeks God's kingdom and God's justice for all.  We are emerging from a 'two-party system' or 'cold war' Christianity that is polarized and paralyzed by left/liberal and right/conservative cleavages, and we are emerging into an integral, holistic, creative, and transforming vision of the missio Dei in which we all participate as colaborers with God.[emph. his] 3

A restorationist community of faith (and I state this based on what I perceive as the Church of Christ's Philippine experience), such a missiological perspective can hardly be factored in most of its evangelistic projects.  For whatever form Christianity has come from the Stone-Campbell Movement of the U.S.A. is often viewed as having directly sprung from the New Testament, AD 33.  It is thus blind to its own biases, highly "textualized," and is largely cerebral in its approach to faith and practice.  To them apply the following observation of Emergent villager Will Samson:

Conservative, cognitive/propositional approaches to understanding God exclusively through the text often do not take fully into account the lack of objectivity of human readers, nor do they fully appreciate the bias we bring as subjective readers.4

In another Emergent work,5 Kester Brewin describes Emergent Systems as being open, flexible, always learning. It gives premium to "distributed knowledge" over authoritarian sources of information, and practices "servant leadership."

My ministerial experience had given me the privilege of working with a few Christian leaders  and churches who/that have embodied or showcased the characteristics of Emergent Systems listed by Brewin. Most congregations and leaders in my former church, however, have found themselves cloistered in a theological system that is suspicious of change, glories in the authority of US-based authors and publications, and promotes a top-down management style.  While many Churches of Christ elsewhere6 are casting off a rigid, sectarian skin and are evolving into what Joseph Myers would tag as "Organic Communities,"7 most Churches of Christ in the Philippines still find it difficult to free themselves from the  rut  of a "1960s-church" they got stuck in as seen in their now glossy but virtually unchanged, content-wise, World Bible School booklets and Jule Miller Filmstrips/VHS-based Bible lessons, and the doctrinal issues they still engage in (a capella and "anti-ism" debates, "indwelling" issue, etc.)

All the foregoing and other developments issuing from the Emerging/Emergent school of thought give me hope for a Christianity that could still make its distinctive voice be heard above the cacophony of sounds in this pluralistic society.

There is always a danger of movements becoming monuments, as someone had warned. And this movement may find itself not exempted from ending up  in such an ossified state, in the long run.  However, the dynamic principles it espouses will surely influence other global and local movements in the generations to come.

On a more positive note, this faith current may eventually develop into divergent streams far beyond what its founders and current leaders may have envisioned, and be absorbed   into the "multicultural forests" across the globe, thus making Christianity more localized and, hopefully, less structured and less formal. Then, will we have a truly heterogeneous Christianity united not by centralized formal and informal structures nor by written and unspoken creeds but by a common faith in a common Savior and a common testimony of personal transformation.

Whatever religious trends will come the Filipino Christians' way, these must not be, as the cliche goes, "swallow[ed] hook, line, and sinker," but appropriated -- what can be serviceable from these foreign ideas and practices to the Philippine Church should be adapted and mainstreamed into the local culture.


1 As Barry Taylor puts it in his article, "Converting Christianity: The End and Beginning of Faith":

Religion is always a cultural production, and the role of sociocultural issues cannot be discounted from the ways in which we envision and understand faith.

- Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones, eds., An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 167.

2 Notwithstanding the habit of some dogmatists of automatically attaching negative connotations to the term "Postmodernism," I believe that Filipino Christians will profit from appropriating concepts associated with this intellectual trend (as well as with Postcolonialism) like "deconstruction" and "decentering."  To learn how to have a balanced outlook on Christianity and Postmodernism, see Pugh, Jeffey C. The Matrix of Faith: Reclaiming a Christian Vision. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001. To get a hold on how some Christians have appropriated Postcolonial Theory, read Lapiz, Ed. Paano Maging Pilipinong Kristiano [Becoming a Filipino Christian]. Makati City: Kaloob, 1997. Suk, John, ed. Doing Theology in the Philippines. Manila: ATS/OMF Literature Inc., 2005.

Recommended online article: "Five Streams of the Emerging Church" by Scot McKnight.

3 Brian D. McLaren, "Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use the Word Postmodern but with Mixed Feelings," in  Pagitt & Jones: 149-150.

4 "The End of Reinvention: Mission Beyond Market Adoption Cycles," in Pagitt & Jones: 156.  See also Ryan Bolger's "Following Jesus into Culture: Emerging Church as Social Movement," ibid.,132-139.

5 Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church that is Organized/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible - Always Evolving (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 97-118.

Among my favorites when it comes to non-traditional concepts of leadership are these two works: Finzel, Hans. The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. Colorado Springs: CCMI, 2000. Reprint, Manila: Christian Growth Ministries, 2002Roxburgh, Alan J. & Fred Romanuk. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

6 To illustrate, I refer the reader to the last two chapters of this companion book to The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), entitled "1967-Present: A Crisis of Identity" and "Facing the Future as a Refugee Movement": Gary Holloway & Douglas A. Foster, Renewing God's People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006), 123-144.

7 A must-read for Christians wondering how their churches could be a hospital and not a dungeon for the spiritually ill: Myers, Joseph R. Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

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